Editorial: State must approve ‘red flag’ gun law

Published: 6/14/2018 9:09:56 AM

Massachusetts is poised to become the latest state allowing relatives, other household members and romantic partners to initiate legal action that would temporarily remove guns from people considered a danger to themselves or others.

The House voted 139-14 in May to approve extreme risk protection orders — commonly known as a “red flag” gun bill — and the Senate passed its version by voice vote last week. We urge the Legislature to quickly resolve minor differences in the bills and send the legislation to Gov. Charlie Baker, who has signaled his support.

Massachusetts would join at least eight other states with “red flag” laws, including several enacted since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff members. In Massachusetts, bipartisan support has been fueled in part by students pressuring legislators to expand the state’s already relatively strong gun-control measures without infringing on Second Amendment rights.

“We’re showing the nation that you can respect the Constitution and still enact common-sense gun legislation,” Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, chief sponsor of the Massachusetts bill, said after its approval by the House.

She was echoed last week by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, D- Newton, who said during debate on the legislation, “We’re not changing the Second Amendment. We’re not doing anything drastic. All we’re doing is making restrictions on those that should not be using guns.”

The “red flag” legislation would expand Massachusetts law that in 2014 gave police chiefs the power to revoke or suspend a gun owner’s license if the law enforcement official determined that person is a threat to public safety. However, there is no legal mechanism now for family members or other civilians concerned about a gun owner’s stability to initiate the temporary removal of weapons.

“We are extremely proud of the gun laws we currently have in Massachusetts, but we know that there is still more we can do to protect public safety here,” said John Rosenthal, a founder of the nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence, an advocate for the “red flag” legislation. “The extreme risk protection order bill empowers families and law enforcement to take action when a close relation is in crisis, while preserving the individual’s right to due process.

“While police already have broad discretion in firearms licensing in Massachusetts, the ERPO bill provides a critical immediate tool for families … to protect loved ones and public safety.”

It would allow family members, a roommate or a current or former romantic partner to act if they believe a gun owner is unstable or dangerous enough to use a firearm to kill themselves or others. Even if the concern is raised outside normal business hours, an on-call judge would be notified to decide whether the evidence warrants an immediate order for police to remove the weapons.

The person making the complaint would be required on the next business day to file a petition with the court. A formal hearing would then be held within 10 days for a judge to hear evidence, including from the gun owner, before deciding whether that person poses a risk by continuing to have firearms. If so, the guns would be confiscated for a year, and the person would not be able to legally obtain firearms during that period.

The legislation is opposed by the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association. “It’s a constitutional nightmare,” said the league’s executive director, Jim Wallace. “This is a bait and switch to the public who thought they were getting a bill about suicide prevention and public safety, but now simply get a gun confiscation bill.”

We disagree. This is sensible legislation that gives people closest to someone showing signs of violent behavior a mechanism to remove their access to firearms for a reasonable period of time while treatment is sought.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in San Francisco, Massachusetts has the fourth strongest gun laws in the country. We urge Baker to make them even stronger by signing the “red flag” bill as soon as it arrives from the Legislature.

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