Gun law negotiators close House-Senate talks

Sen. Cindy Creem talks to Sen. Bruce Tarr about a vote to close meetings between the conference committee tasked with negotiating a major gun control reform bill to the public.

Sen. Cindy Creem talks to Sen. Bruce Tarr about a vote to close meetings between the conference committee tasked with negotiating a major gun control reform bill to the public. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

By SAM DRYSDALE

State House News Service

Published: 03-28-2024 5:26 PM

BOSTON — Lawmakers tasked with negotiating details of a major firearms bill left their work open to the public last week — a move that broke from opaque traditions on Beacon Hill. A week later, those negotiators moved to close their meetings to the public.

The conference committee negotiating significant gun law reform legislation voted Wednesday at the start of its second meeting to enter executive session, which means the media and members of the public are not allowed to attend the sessions.

After the vote, lawmakers sat silently and waited as reporters and others packed up their things to file out of the State House meeting room. Among those who had to leave were representatives from Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group.

Democrats on the committee claimed they supported transparency in the Legislature, but felt private talks are appropriate in this instance. The six conferees voted 4-2 along party lines to go into executive session.

Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem, who seconded Rep. Carlos González of Springfield’s motion to move into executive session, said she supported private talks because her family was targeted by a gun owner.

“I’m very much in favor of conducting this conference committee in public, however I will tell you why today I move to go into executive session,” Lovely said. “In 2020 or 2019, both my daughter and I ... received threats, gun threats, from an individual that lived in my district at the time.”

Lovely said the man followed her daughter and found out where she lived.

“Then I started receiving emails, hundreds of emails, very threatening emails, gun emails [that] had to do with high-powered firearms,” Lovely said. “Because of those threats to myself and my daughter I got my license to carry. I wanted to be able to, if I needed to, purchase a firearm to protect my family. I do see this heavily charged atmosphere of, not just these two bills that we’re now conferencing, but the world in general.”

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She said the conferees have all received “hundreds of hundreds of emails from folks who are opposed to both these bills,” which have “pretty highly charged language and tone.” The Salem Democrat later added, “I don’t feel safe.”

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr opposed the motion to close the meeting, saying it would hurt public trust.

The Gloucester Republican said he was sorry to hear what Lovely and her daughter went through, calling it “clearly inappropriate,” but said it would promote public goodwill for people to be able to witness the negotiations.

“We will not be coerced, we will conduct our business and we will move forward, and we will condemn in the strongest possible terms anyone who threatens the safety of any legislator. And I will point out that our names, our identities, our addresses are already known. Closing the conference committee will not change that,” Tarr said. “My fear is that by closing we may as well stoke, in the presence of a vacuum relative to public awareness of what we’re doing, we may stoke a kind of distrust that can lead to some of the actions that have been described.”

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, who is leading negotiations on the Senate side, said she voted to make the meetings private in case there was a lawsuit against the eventual compromise bill.

“I support transparency in the Legislature. But my understanding of when you go into executive session is when there are issues that might be discussed that could potentially result in litigation somewhere down the road,” the Newton Democrat said, calling gun control reform a “moving target.”

Republican Rep. Joseph McKenna echoed Tarr, saying that cloaking the negotiations in shadow would further misinformation about the bill.

“By closing this conference, we are allowing the opponents of this measure to make their own narrative about what is happening behind closed doors,” he said.

Even after reporters and members of the public filed out of the State House room where the negotiations were being held, Democrats leading the work were not very forthcoming with information about how those talks went.

Asked by reporters as they came out of the meeting room about which topics representatives and senators agree on, Rep. Mike Day of Stoneham replied, “Look at the bills. You can find out the areas that are — certain sections are touched on by both chambers.”

Reporters pressed Day on which of the areas of agreement came up at Wednesday’s meeting.

“A bunch of issues,” he said.

The Senate’s bill is 94 pages shorter than the House’s. Areas of agreement include expanding the state’s red flag law, allowing more people to petition the courts to remove the firearms of someone deemed to be in danger, banning weapons in government buildings, allowing health care providers to ask courts to take guns away from people and several other points. There are also key differences as representatives are seeking to prohibit carrying in polling places and expand the list of people who can remove someone’s weapons under the “red flag” law, while the Senate hopes to ban the firearm industry from marketing to minors.

Day has repeatedly said the gun control bill is urgent, citing shootings that have happened in the state over the past year.

“Since we met last week, three more shootings in Massachusetts, two in Springfield,” Day said. “Our job here in the executive committee, in this group here, is to get a bill up. To iron out differences between the two bills. We’ve got to do that with alacrity. We’re going to do that as expeditiously as possible.”

The gun reform bill sat for months without any movement until House Speaker Ron Mariano tried to push it through his chamber last summer before lawmakers broke for an August recess. That first attempt failed, and representatives passed their version of the bill in October. The Senate passed its version of the sweeping reform in February.

“We all have a sense of urgency,” Creem said Wednesday. “People are waiting to hear what’s going to happen on both sides.”

Amy Carnevale, chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, released a statement about closing off the talks.

“The negotiations on pending gun legislation ought to be done in the public eye, not in back rooms,” she said. “Aside from the troubling contents of this legislation, it is appalling that the Democratic Supermajority is seeking to shield these important discussions from the public. When debating legislation with considerable impact on the law-abiding sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts of the commonwealth, it is imperative that we, the voters, have an idea of how our Senators and Representatives build such controversial and impactful legislation.”