New England News
6:10 pm
Thu August 14, 2014

Mass. Gun Law Seen As Solid Compromise

Governor Deval Patrick signed the gun legislation Wednesday at the State House.
Governor Deval Patrick signed the gun legislation Wednesday at the State House.
Credit Eric Haynes / Office of Governor Deval Patrick

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed new gun legislation into law Wednesday. It's being praised by both gun rights activists and gun control advocates as a good compromise.

The signing marked the culmination of recommendations made by a task force created after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut and more than 60 pieces of related legislation filed following the December 2012 tragedy. One decisive issue was whether or not to expand a firearms’ licensing officer’s authority. The officers, typically police chiefs, already had authority in deciding whether a person was suitable to carry a handgun and still do.

The House passed a version giving chiefs greater discretion over who could get an identification card needed to buy a rifle or shotgun. The Senate stripped the provision. Following kickback from law enforcement agencies and gun rights activists, the new law requires chiefs to provide evidence to a judge proving a firearms identification card should not be granted. Executive Director for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association Wayne Sampson says giving police a say yet leaving the decision up to a judge is a good compromise.

“But if the judge says issue it, we are going to absolutely go ahead and issue it,” Sampson said. “If something unfortunately should happen in the future, at least we can say we tried, but this is the way the system is. So if we have to issue it, we issue it, that’s it, end of story.”

Sampson says evidence could be things like domestic disputes or alcohol issues that never reached the court level. Sheila Decter is with the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, which pushed for that expanded authority.

“The compromise that came out of the conference committee was somewhat of a surprise, but it was one that we definitely could live with because it did retain police discretion,” said Decter.

Jim Wallace is executive director of the Gun Owner’s Action League, or GOAL, the state’s branch of the NRA. He says gun rights advocates also saw progress in the suitability standard for licenses to carry.

“In the past, pretty much the person seeking the license had to prove their suitability if the chief had a question,” Wallace said. “This reverses the role and puts the burden squarely on the chief.”

The law also brings Massachusetts in line with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Courts are now required to report those involuntarily committed for mental health treatment into the national database. The commonwealth was one of only seven states that didn’t provide this information.

“The big fear all the time had been that it was somehow going to get in the way of people who go to mental health counselors for a whole long variety of things,” Decter said. “If somebody goes for grief counseling after death we don’t want three years later when they get a job where they need permission to use and have a gun, we didn’t want it coming back to bite them.”

The law also requires schools to address mental health needs among staff and students as well as place a resource officer in every district if funding is available. Sampson says it’s a good idea in theory, but who knows how effective it will be, especially in rural western Massachusetts.

“You have a number of communities that don’t even have full-time police departments,” Sampson said. “They’re not going to turn around and hire a full-time police officer to be in the school. They’re going to have to find an alternative way to accomplish that.”

The law will create a web-portal allowing for real-time background checks for private sales, establish a firearms tracking unit within state police and stiffen penalties for gun-based crimes. Logistically, Sampson says it will take time for the various state and local departments to get everything running.

“This is not an overnight fix,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise us if it takes months if not a year or so to really get everything down.”

Gun control activists pushed for setting a limit of one gun purchase per month, which didn’t make it into the law. Meanwhile, Wallace expressed displeasure about GOAL not being invited to Wednesday’s signing ceremony.

“Maybe the slight was even worse because there were people there at the bill signing that had absolutely nothing to do with making this happen,” said Wallace.

The Patrick administration has apologized for what it calls a mix-up.