Board members weigh in on carrying weapons to meetings

  • The Bennington Zoning Board of Adjustments postpones a hearing regarding a sign variance for a proposed Dollar General store that could be built along Route 202. (Abby Kessler / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript)

  • Residents turned out in droves to a special Select Board meeting on Thursday, April 7 at the Temple Town Hall. (Ashley Saari / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, August 16, 2017 11:10PM

There are few federal laws that limit where a private citizen can carry their firearm if they have the correct permit. Schools and courts, for example, are off-limits. But in most public spaces, including town-owned buildings, that right is preserved. 

While some towns have enacted policies that bar employees from having weapons on the job, that mandate doesn’t extend to private citizens, or to elected officials. 

Bennington Zoning Board of Adjustment member Sam Cohen, who was censured earlier this month for taking out bullets during a public meeting, said in an interview Tuesday that he carries a concealed weapon at all times. Including to official board meetings.

“When I put my pants on, I put my pistol on,” Cohen said. “I don’t leave my house without it.”

The zoning board voted to censure Cohen over his comments and actions regarding an incident at a July hearing when he took two bullets out of a clip he was carrying and reportedly said to a consultant for Dollar General: “This is what I tell people from Massachusetts — take two of these and call me in the morning.”

The consultant, Carolyn A. Parker, lodged a complaint with the Bennington police regarding the incident.

Cohen denies that he said the first half of the statement – “This is what I tell people from Massachusetts” – and that the second half was a joke and a reference to the television show “M.A.S.H.”

Cohen is not the only member of a regional board to exercise his second amendment rights while performing town duties. Ken Caisse, a selectman in Temple and owner of Firearms, Etc., said he also carries a gun at all times. 

“It doesn’t really matter where I’m at,” he said.

Caisse said his gun is concealed at all times, and that “no one even knows I have it.” There is a big difference, he said, in concealed carry and open carry, though both are legal in the state. He acknowledged that in showing a weapon, there is an element of intimidation. Cohen’s actions, he said, could clearly be seen as threatening.

“Under no circumstances,” said Caisse, when asked if he would ever display his firearm in a meeting. “To me, [Cohen’s actions] would be more of a threat, and there is no place and no time for that, especially when you’re dealing with the public. I believe in second amendment rights, but I also believe in making the right choices.”

Cohen said that he usually follows the same policy of keeping his weapon concealed. 

“I carry concealed,” Cohen said. “Most people carry concealed for the obvious reasons...if there ever is an armed criminal attack, anybody who is carrying visibly will be the first target.”

Cohen, however, when asked if he saw carrying a weapon could be seen as intimidating, responded by asking, “Why should people be frightened by guns?”

Other select board members who are also gun owners, but not regular carriers, took a different view of the issue.

“I think it’s generally inappropriate,” said Temple Select Board member Bill Ezell, who said he owns a gun but does not take it to public meetings. “Town meetings should not be the wild west. It’s very unlikely that someone is going to come into a meeting and you’re going to have a situation where you would need a firearm. If you’re in a situation where you feel there is someone that might do something, have the police chief there.”

Ezell acknowledged that, under the law, people have the right to carry their firearms to public meetings, including as officials, but said he didn’t see the need for it, especially when interacting with the public as a figure of authority.

“Some people certainly might [feel intimidated],” he said. “Whether or not that’s a justified feeling of intimidation. The mere fact that you own a gun doesn’t make you a threat.”

Fred Douglas, who is the chief of police in Francestown, and a selectman in Lyndeborough, said that he owns multiple firearms privately, but that unlike many police officers, rarely carries out of uniform. He has never brought a firearm when acting as a board member, he said, though he acknowledged other’s right to do so.

Several select boards around the region discussed the matter of firearms on town grounds last year, when an advisory was put out in a municipal newsletter that cautioned towns against measures such as banning guns from town buildings, suggesting that was an over-reach of municipal power. That raised questions over whether towns could have employee policies that prevented them from carrying firearms on the job (excepting police). Several towns had such policies and reviewed them after the gray area came to light.

Wilton eventually changed a policy banning firearms from town owned properties to remove the restriction, including for employees, as a result, leading to the resignation of then-Selectman Dan Donovan, who felt strongly that the restrictions should remain in place.

No matter their stance on the issue, all agreed that showing or referencing your firearm when interacting with a member of the public was inappropriate for an elected official.

Caisse and Douglas are both certified firearms instructors and said that there is a certain level of responsibility that must be observed by owners of firearms.

Douglas, speaking from a law enforcement perspective, said it didn’t matter how Cohen might have meant the comment – it mattered more how Parker received it. 

“If this woman, at the time, formed the opinion that she was being threatened, or was scared, there could be a case made for violation of the disorderly conduct statute or criminal threatening,” said Douglas. “No matter whether it’s the police department, Planning Board, Zoning Board or selectmen — you have to treat people with respect. I think firearms have a place in society, but there are always a certain few that cross the line.”

“What kind of joke is he trying to make?” said Ezell. “If he thinks it’s funny, he’s wrong. If he thinks it’s not threatening, he’s wrong.”

Cohen, who moved from California to New Hampshire in 2000, is a former director (from 2001-06) of the Gun Owners of New Hampshire, Inc. -- the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate. In 2004, Cohen said he successfully lobbied to remove a "No Firearms" sign from a state government building.

Cohen has operated a website, nhgunlaws.info, since 2014 which directs visitors to a 21-page document, full of news about changes in gun laws and frequently asked questions like “What are the most important considerations about carrying a gun?” to which Cohen says: “Avoid confrontations at all costs — no rude gestures, no shouting at anyone, etc., and remember that guns are, and should be, humbling; swallow your pride and stay out of prison. Avoidance is ALWAYS the best solution.”

Cohen said that if fellow board members of the Select Board requested that he not bring his firearm to meetings, he would continue to exercise his right to carry, saying it would be illegal to require he leave his weapon behind.