Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo has unveiled long-awaited gun legislation. The bill is a compilation of more than 60 pieces of legislation filed at the beginning of the legislative session weeks after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
The legislation also mirrors many of the recommendations made by a gun violence task force created after the Newton shooting. Representative Harold Naughton Jr. says he is confident the legislation will reduce gun-related crimes and fatalities while upholding citizens’ second amendment rights. Naughton co-chairs a joint Senate and House committee that held a series of public hearings across the state last summer. The Democrat from Clinton spoke with WAMC News in December.
“Now is the time to act,” Naughton said. “Now is the time to take a look at what’s going on in our society with these issues and try to create further safeguards in getting the illegal guns off our streets and protecting our children and the rest of our society at large.”
Jim Wallace is executive director of the Gun Owners' Action League, or GOAL. He says the group’s membership has increased 25 percent over the past two years to 16,000.
“Quite a bit of this bill is just more of the same, coming after lawful gun owners instead of the human criminal element,” said Wallace.
The bill would expand what’s called a suitability standard. Currently, police chiefs and licensing officers can deny a person from owning a handgun if the person is deemed not suitable. The bill would expand that authority to include rifles and shotguns. Sheila Decter is with the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
“But if you got turned down for a handgun under the old situation, you could then go and get a card which allows you buy a rifle and certain kinds of shotguns,” Decter said. “So that made no sense at all.”
Wallace says it’s not a good idea.
“That has been probably the most widely abused gun law in Massachusetts by the licensing authorities,” Wallace said. “Unfortunately it’s been the cause of countless court cases, lawsuits against police chiefs and licensing officers misusing that suitability discretion and now for some reason they want to expand it rather than actually fix it and get rid of it they are looking to expand that authority which we find just unconscionable to actually expand the authority that has been so widely abused.”
The bill would also require gun sales be conducted at a place operated by a licensed firearm dealer and the dealer must submit specific information on the gun to the state. Wallace says that is added bureaucracy since buyers and sellers are already background checked and paperwork is filed. Wallace says gun-related homicides have doubled and assaults have tripled since the state’s 1998 gun control laws went into effect while the number of lawful gun owners has decreased by 80 percent.
“Can you imagine the state saying we need to reduce driving incidents so we are going to take 80 percent of the people off the road and then they end up tripling? I don’t think that would be tolerated in this state or any state for that matter,” said Wallace.
Schools would be required to develop plans to address mental health and set up dedicated two-way communication with local emergency personnel. State commissions would review school emergency response plans and study behavioral health in public schools. Decter says having a school resource officer trained in mental health is key.
“School resource officers mean people especially trained to work with young children and to figure out how to build up confidence in them so they’re not seen as some outsider controlling them but more a part of school system,” said Decter.
Decter says the mental health focus strikes a balance between being too broad and ineffective by making sure not to discourage people from seeking counseling. But the state would collect data on those involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.
“So it does not include people who check themselves in for help and does not include the variety of counseling that people might seek,” said Decter.
Wallace questions just how effective some of those initiatives will be, such as placing a suicide hotline number on gun licenses.
“If I’m suicidal I don’t think the first place I’d look for help is a phone number on my gun license,” Wallace said. “So those things, I don’t know if they make somebody feel better by doing it, but I don’t think it’s going to be effective at reducing suicide.”
The legislation streamlines the state with the national instant background check system, something GOAL supports. GOAL has filed its own legislation aimed at addressing trafficking and criminal actions. Wallace says it’s currently in committee.
“It’s pretty clear that lawful gun owners had very little if any input into this piece of legislation which is very disappointing,” Wallace said. “I was really hoping for a bill that we could all support that would help mental illness and go after the criminal element. Unfortunately that’s not what we got.”
With two months left in the legislative session, the bill most go through the House to the Senate and then to the governor’s desk before being enacted.