Gun control on minds of lawmakers

Herald-Tribune
This gun safety course was sponsored by the Charlotte County, Fla. sheriff's department. Some legislators would like to mandate that such courses in Massachusetts offer live range shooting as part of the curriculum.

Herald-Tribune This gun safety course was sponsored by the Charlotte County, Fla. sheriff's department. Some legislators would like to mandate that such courses in Massachusetts offer live range shooting as part of the curriculum.

A new round of legislation aims to further tighten restrictions for gun owners in Massachusetts and usher in stiffer penalties for those who violate the laws.

Massachusetts already has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws, including an assault weapons ban. But area lawmakers and their constituents hold mixed views about whether more laws will reduce gun violence.

“It’s very important for the governor, the House, the Senate and the people of the commonwealth to share their perspectives on what we need to do to reduce gun violence and still enjoy the quality of life that we want,” said state Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange. “There’s no easy answer, but together, we can figure it out.”

Several firearms bills have been put forward by lawmakers since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December, which left 26 students and educators dead, though two separate packages — by state Rep. David P. Linsky, D-Natick, and Gov. Deval Patrick — are stirring the most public debate about whether more gun reforms are necessary.

The same kinds of questions are being asked in Washington, where talks on banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are taking center stage.

“What I’ve found is that most responsible, legal gun owners are in favor of some reasonable restrictions, and in favor of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals,” said Linsky, a former prosecutor in Middlesex County. “We need a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence.”

Linsky’s bill would require gun owners to obtain liability insurance, and for all large-capacity weapons and grandfathered assault weapons to be stored at gun clubs or target ranges, not homes.

State Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said he is waiting for subcommittee reports on the proposed legislation before he rolls up his sleeves and dives into it. He has, however, heard a lot from his constituents.

“I hear a wide variety of opinions,” said Rosenberg. “There’s a feeling among some that (gun control increases) will never end. They see it as a continuous cascade of anti-gun sentiments playing out.

“On the other end, there are some people that think nobody should own guns but the police and the military,” he continued. “Our job (as legislators) is to find the balance point, and do what’s necessary — not less, and not more.”

Linsky’s bill would require all applicants for gun licenses to sign a waiver of mental health records to allow review and impose a 25 percent sales tax on ammunition, firearms, shotguns and rifles (up from the present ordinary sales tax of 6.25 percent). The money would fund firearms licensing, police training, mental health and victims’ services.

Linsky’s bill would also limit gun buyers to one firearm purchase per month and bring Massachusetts into compliance with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Courts would be required to transmit mental health records for inclusion in a national registry, which states could use for background checks before issuing gun licenses. The bill also would require live shooting as part of basic firearms safety courses.

The measures have found general support from some lawmakers, but they are getting critical reviews elsewhere. Some lawmakers and gun owners say the measures overreach and are an emotional response to December’s mass shooting in Connecticut.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said he has heard from a large number of constituents concerned about Linsky’s bill, many of whom feel the legislation is unfairly targeting law-abiding and responsible gun owners.

“They are really raising questions like ‘Why should we be taxed more?’ and ‘Why liability insurance?’” Kulik said.

“I think his approach is to make gun ownership so expensive that there will be fewer gun owners. I do have trouble with that approach.”

Andrews said that making guns too expensive to buy in Massachusetts could simply cause people to leave the state to buy guns, sending them to nearby states like Vermont, where many firearms banned in Massachusetts, including high-capacity assault rifles, are readily available.

Andrews believes the country needs more uniform gun laws, as they vary greatly from state to state.

Some lawmakers fully support Linsky’s bill, as well as aspects of the governor’s proposals. State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, said she is intrigued by the idea of requiring proof of liability insurance for possession of a firearm, which she described as “brilliant.”

Linsky said the liability insurance component to his bill would help reduce negligent acts involving firearms, such as accidents resulting from improper storage, for example. He noted that about 10 states are considering similar insurance measures and that even the National Rifle Association offers the benefit to its members along with expanded coverage through private insurance companies.

“The marketplace can very effectively reduce accidents ... as it has with car accidents,” Linsky said.

The governor’s approach

In January, the governor filed his own gun-safety legislation, some aspects of which mirror Linsky’s proposals. The governor’s bill would enhance background checks on gun buyers, reduce access to high-powered ammunition, and create new firearms crimes and tougher penalties.

Patrick also is including in the next fiscal budget $5 million more for mental health programs, which he says can have the greatest impact on public safety.

“Mental illness is a disease that can be treated, and our communities are safer when the appropriate services and supports are available for people in need,” Patrick said when he announced the funding.

Linsky, who has worked on gun-violence prevention for decades, describes his legislation as a comprehensive and “common sense” effort to reduce all types of gun violence as well as suicides.

In crafting the bill, he said he heard from gun owners, military veterans, nurses, parents, hunters, former teachers, police officers and criminologists, among other professionals.

“There are 32,000 firearms deaths a year in the U.S. and most of them are preventable,” he said. “When you compare the U.S. statistics to other countries in the world, it’s embarrassing, and it’s wrong.”

Linsky said he expects some combination of provisions in his bill and the governor’s will likely gain support in the Legislature, though not all of the measures.

“Do I agree with everything in Rep. Linsky’s bill? No,” said Andrews. “But I think it’s very good to lay these things down right out of the box, so we can discuss them and figure out how to move toward improvement.”

For Andrews, the top priority in the gun control debate is getting “inappropriate weaponry” out of the hands of the general public.

“We don’t need the ability (for civilians) to own high-capacity assault weapons,” she said. “Those should only be in the hands of our military and law enforcement personnel.”

Her second priority is making sure people who purchase guns are fit to have them, through background checks as well as increased gun safety education.

Troubling statistics

James Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League in Massachusetts, says the reforms proposed by Linsky and Patrick would not make people safer. He points to the state’s increase in gun violence since the state last passed gun control measures 15 years ago. Citing FBI and state data, the Boston Globe reported last month that gunshot injuries, aggravated assaults and robberies involving guns and murders committed with firearms have all risen in Massachusetts, in some cases dramatically, since the state’s last approved major gun law reforms in 1998.

At the same time, the state has seen a dramatic drop in the number of licensed gun owners — hundreds of thousands — during that time.

“A lot of people are so concerned about being a gun owner because the laws are so convoluted, they don’t know what’s expected of them,” Wallace said. He contends the Linsky and Patrick bills “actually make it worse.”

The organization has long fought for legislation that would target those prohibited from gun ownership by preventing them from getting access to guns. It has also submitted its own firearms legislation.

Its members also have raised questions about the role of violent video games in the lives of troubled and potentially violent young people, as well as the treatment of depression in teenagers and adolescents.

Conway Police Chief Kenneth D. Ouimette said he finds many aspects of Linsky’s bill “troublesome,” but sees some good points. A firearms instructor and past president of the Conway Sportsman’s Club, he said he supports live shooting as a requirement in basic firearms training and has always questioned why there was no live shooting in the state’s hunter education program.

“You make them much more safety-conscious,” Ouimette said.

He also said he favors more firearms education, particularly at a young age. “You have to break the mystique of the gun,” he said.

Andrews agreed. She said she was raised with guns in the house, and taught early on to respect firearms at an early age.

Others who handle or sell guns say they are supportive of enhanced background checks and don’t understand why they aren’t universal in the country.

“I don’t understand why anyone would disagree,” said Brad Borofsky, president of Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters in Hadley and Brattleboro, Vt., which sells rifles and shotguns. “If you’re going to have background checks, it shouldn’t just be in retail stores.”

Borofsky said he’s hopeful some kind of compromise can be reached regarding the proposed legislation in terms of both enhancing public safety and maintaining Second Amendment rights.

“I can understand the gun enthusiasts are frustrated, and I understand the people who are scared and frustrated about the lack of progress,” he said.

Rosenberg said the state needs to close loopholes and enforce current gun control laws, in addition to any new legislation.

“I’m told that we’re not as vigorous as we should be in participating in national database programs,” he said. One delicate area, said Rosenberg, is the sharing of mental health information that could identify people who shouldn’t have guns.

One proposal that is getting pushback from gun advocates is a requirement in Linsky’s bill that all large-capacity firearms and grandfathered assault weapons (those manufactured before Sept. 13, 1994) be stored at gun clubs or target ranges and no longer in private homes.

He said the legislation would allow for a one-year phase-in of storage facilities, though critics of the measure say it would be expensive, requiring 24-hour security, and would raise access issues.

“They’re not armories,” said Jan Dizard, an Amherst College professor and hunter who has written on guns in America. “It’s just not practical.”

Dizard also says lawmakers must be careful when crafting laws regarding the release of mental health records, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to identifying potentially violent gun owners and there are privacy issues at stake.

Apart from suicides, most of the gun violence problem in America, he said, comes in the form of homicides and domestic assaults. Many of these crimes, he said, don’t typically involve a mental illness diagnosis. He noted that predicting whether someone might engage in a mass shooting is impossible.

“People’s lives and circumstances change,” Dizard said. “You can’t have everybody being examined every week to see if they are competent to possess a handgun.”

Dizard said he believes gun storage laws have gone a long way to reducing accidental shootings and is in favor of a more effective reporting system that would include people who have been involuntarily institutionalized or determined to pose a danger to themselves or others.

“I think that knowledge should be made available,” he said.

Others, like Story, of Amherst, said because the purchase of a gun is a voluntary act, allowing a review of mental health records should be a condition for those seeking firearms licenses.

“It’s not like everybody who sees a psychiatrist is going to be in a database somewhere,” she said.

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