Portsmouth leaders urge gun laws, school safety: ‘People are scared’

Second Amendment

PORTSMOUTH — The firearms and ammunition 25-year-old Kyle Hendrickson allegedly had when threatening to “shoot up” Portsmouth High School last week has local residents and leaders feeling like their worst nightmare easily could have become reality.

“The guy had guns, body armor,” Portsmouth Mayor Deaglan McEachern. “That’s pretty nuts and terrifying to me as a parent. It’s difficult to even think about what could be a parent’s worst day ever.”

Hendrickson allegedly posted a Snapchat video of himself with a gun seated in a Ford Explorer outside Portsmouth High School. The video included the message “Imma gonna shoot up the school,” according to Jane Young, U.S. attorney for New Hampshire.

According to allegations in court documents, the items found in the SUV were a black outside waist handgun holster, a Kittery Trading Post bag with four boxes of assorted ammunition, a Sig Romeo 7 red dot sight for a modern sporting rifle, six buckshot shotgun rounds and a box of .22-caliber rimfire ammunition. In the back trunk, they found camouflage body armor, a box of 50 rounds of 40 caliber Smith & Wesson ammunition, a box of five shotgun rounds, an unloaded Chiappa Firearms shotgun and an unloaded Radical 5.56 RG15 assault rifle. In the center console of the car, police said they recovered a 5.56 magazine and 13 rounds of 40-caliber Smith & Wesson ammunition within a handgun magazine.

McEachern said when he was informed about the threat and the decision to close the city’s schools, he was in his daughter’s room because she was having difficulty sleeping.

“I had the thought that I hoped my wife, Lori, would be asleep when I returned to bed,” he said. “Then, she could have a good night’s sleep before I had to tell her. It’s a terrible thought, your child dead, or the fear they would experience if something like this came into their school.”

Portsmouth Police Chief Mark Newport said, “People are scared. Schools used to be a safe place for our kids. That sense of security is being challenged.”

The chief added, “We are fortunate that we do not have a lot of violent crime here. But we are not immune and that’s why we train, to prepare as best we can for such an event. The first threat we had here this year was a hoax. This one was not the same thing.”

The Portsmouth threat incident came about two weeks after a school shooting in Nashville left three 9-year-old children and three adults dead.

Portsmouth leaders call for gun laws and school safety measures

McEachern said he would like Portsmouth to have a school resource officer in all schools. Currently there is an SRO in the middle and the high school, but not in the elementary schools.

“We have time to have this discussion as the budget has not been finalized,” he said. “I would like to see SROs added for all the elementary schools. The City Council cannot add that line item, so it would need to come from the police, or from the schools. I think having a cruiser outside each school could be a deterrent.”

McEachern said he sees the role of an SRO in a school not as a disciplinary role, but as a safety measure.

“We used to have Kevin Semprini, Officer Friendly,” he said. “Our kids should feel secure knowing if there is trouble, they can reach out and rely on their SRO.”

“That is certainly a topic open for conversation,” Newport said. “In a perfect world, it would be so. But we have to have the right officer for the position, and we are also facing staffing issues. We need the right people, to have the right impact on the kids, parents and the schools.”

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Portsmouth Police Commission chairperson Stefany Shaheen is also a school parent in Portsmouth.

“With children in the Portsmouth schools, we have kids getting shooter drills, and the schools being on lockdown,” Shaheen said. “I have gotten those terrifying texts, with kids in a closet, texting they do not know what is going on.”

Luckily, she said, with the expertise of the FBI and Portsmouth police, Hendrickson was quickly identified and apprehended.

“The arsenal he had was so frightening,” she said. “I reject the notion that there is nothing we can do. There are things we can do, and we need to do them now. The number one cause of death for our children right now is gun violence.”

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Every time there is a school shooting, or a threat the topic of changing gun laws comes up, not much changes, McEachern said, referencing a longtime political divide.

“Guys like this should not have access to guns,” McEachern said. “He has a record, was a red flag. At the state level, we get frustrated with the legislature because there have to be better ways to do what is needed here. We can push for better gun laws, but they need support. If we could agree there is a certain group of people who have lost their rights to have guns, it’s a start. We can do the right thing, the responsible thing. I think gun owners should be a part of the conversation and we should do what is easiest first, like backing up red flag laws, background checks, and waiting period to buy guns, and ammo.”

Mayor McEachern commentary: We must do everything we can to assure our schools are safe

New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who spoke to the National Rifle Association Friday, has consistently opposed gun laws that would add restrictions. He has said they won’t make schools safer.

Shaheen said it’s time for the lawmakers in this country to put every option on the table.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “We need every leader, every teacher, every parent on board to do a better job. This person should have been red flagged, should never have had access to the arsenal he had.

Shaheen said bump stocks that can shoot 90 bullets in 10 seconds should not be available. She said loopholes at gun shows need to be closed, so background checks are happening on all gun sales.

“We should have buyback programs, the same as we have take-back days for drugs,” Shaheen said. “People should be able to safely turn over guns. We need more things like trigger lock giveaways.”

Shaheen pointed to polls showing a majority of Americans favor changes to gun laws.

“Everyone has to come to the table on this,” Shaheen said. “The Second Amendment and keeping kids safe is not mutually exclusive.”

Newport was asked if Hendrickson would have attempted to carry out his threat. He said there is no way to know.

“I can’t get inside his head,” he said. “So we will continue working with our community, with the schools, the City Council, the mayor and the city manager, to decide how we make our schools safer. I think right now we are all on the same page.”

How the case against Kyle Hendrickson is proceeding

Hendrickson on Monday remained in Cumberland County Jail in Portland, Maine, according to Newport.

Hendrickson was arrested Thursday, April 13, in Portland, charged with criminal threatening with a firearm, a Class B felony. On Friday, Young announced Hendrickson is facing a federal charge of “transmitting in interstate commerce a threat to injure the person of another.”

Hendrickson is scheduled for an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Concord, Monday, April 24.

Newport said Hendrickson waived extradition from Maine to New Hampshire in a court appearance in Portland, on Friday. He said Hendrickson will be transported to New Hampshire and face the state’s felony charge at Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood before his date in federal court.

The federal charge is punishable by up to five years in prison, up to three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000 if there is a guilty finding, according to Young. The Class B felony criminal threatening charge is punishable by 3 ½ to 7 years.

Behzad Mirhashem, a federal defender serving as Hendrickson’s attorney, could not be reached for comment Monday.

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