SENATORS PRIVATELY DEBATE NEW APPROACHES TO GUN VIOLENCE
By Matt Murphy and Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 7, 2018….Provoked by last month’s high school shooting in Florida, a number of state senators see an appetite among their colleagues to take a fresh look at the state’s gun laws this year and room to improve what many already consider some of the strictest laws in the country.
Senate Democrats met Wednesday for about two hours in a closed-door caucus where guns were the main topic on the agenda.
A half dozen senators interviewed by the News Service before and after that meeting identified areas in state law that they think could be improved to make schools safer and to keep guns out of the hands of potential violent citizens.
While the Legislature responded rapidly last year to ban bump stocks following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, senators said this time around the path forward is less clear, and stressed the importance of approaching the issue “thoughtfully.”
“I’m on that side always,” said Sen. Sal DiDomenico, an assistant majority leader, when asked if he thought the Legislature should act on gun control. “Tragedies have been happening all across this country. There’s a lot going on right now, and if we just stand pat and put our heads in the sand and believe nothing else is going to happen if we don’t address it then we’re fooling ourselves.”
The idea of allowing courts to order the confiscation of firearms if a person is determined to be a threat to themselves or others has garnered considerable attention on Beacon Hill since the Marjory Douglas High School shooting, but several senators said it’s also important to look at the state’s mental health system and school security.
“There were not definitive answers,” DiDomenico said, reflecting on the discussion in caucus.
Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said Democrats also discussed ways they could support students around the country who are planning school walk-outs next Wednesday in solidarity with their fellow students in Florida to draw attention to the national debate over guns and school safety.
Cyr said Democrats agreed to reschedule next Wednesday morning’s caucus to allow senators to either attend student demonstrations in their districts, or support the cause from Boston.
“I think we’re going to try to support them, but making sure to have it be student led. This isn’t an opportunity for elected folks like us to be up there, this is an opportunity for them to be really calling out adults and holding adults accountable to address meaningful policy as it relates to gun violence,” Cyr said.
Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, a Newburyport Democrat, said that she believes Massachusetts can do more to allow police to confiscate firearms from people already prohibited from owning weapons, and look at new technologies available that could make schools safer.
“My hope is that the Senate will take up substantive legislation that addresses any outstanding problems with our state’s gun control laws and that does also relate to the need for more attention to our public safety officials being able to access mental health information,” she said.
She added, “It’s not about violating anyone’s constitutional rights and it’s not about making it more difficult for law abiding citizens. It’s about us taking up the responsibility we have as legislators to address the obvious vacuum in the laws that keep causing these tragedies to take place.”
On his way into caucus, Sen. Michael Moore, who co-chairs the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, said the task before the Senate was to zero in on the powers law enforcement currently have to rescind the gun license of someone deemed to be a risk, and how that authority differs from measures proposed in bills filed by Reps. David Linsky and Marjorie Decker.
The Linsky and Decker bills (H 3081, H 3610) each establish “extreme risk protective orders,” through which courts could prohibit a person from owning a gun for one year in certain circumstances, including threats of violence.
“I think it actually goes right at the concept of what we need to be addressing,” Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said. “Right now, every incident that comes up, it seems to be a mental health-related occurrence, so we need to find some way to really address that issue without penalizing people who have a mental illness or making them feel like there’s a stigma to it so they don’t seek treatment for it. I think this is the concept, is what we’ve got to look at. How we get there now is the question.”
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, was outside Senate President Harriette Chandler’s office as the caucus began, talking with Moore and a representative of the Humane Society about anti-poaching legislation.
Wallace, whose organization opposes the extreme risk protection order bills, said police chiefs already have the power to suspend someone’s firearms license. He called the state’s gun laws “convoluted” and said one of the biggest problems is that few people understand what’s already on the books.
“We’ve been very successful in passing some very strict criminal gun laws, and I don’t think they’re being used at all, at least I get that opinion, because when you talk to people, most people don’t even know they exist,” he said. “We’re giving them all these tools and they’re apparently not doing anything, so if we’re just talking about passing more gun laws just for the sake of passing more gun laws, what for?”
Sen. Cindy Friedman said she’d like to see more clarity about what types of firearms qualify as assault weapons, which are banned under state law. Before the caucus, the Arlington Democrat said she didn’t know what would be recommended but would examine any proposals carefully, “and if I think they make common sense, I would support them.”
“I am a huge supporter of gun control legislation, and anything we can do to strengthen our gun control laws,” she said. “I’m not against people owning guns but I think we need to do a lot to ensure that we’re safe and that guns are used appropriately.”
DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat who was recently promoted within Senate leadership, said he believes the Senate will take some action before formal sessions end in July.
“We hope so. That’s our plan anyway. As a body, I think we want to address this issue this session,” he said.
O’Connor Ives said that it will be important that whatever the Senate decides to take up, it be a package of reforms that can also pass the House and be signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.
In recent years, House Speaker Robert DeLeo has taken the lead on gun issues, spearheading an effort that led to a 2014 reform of gun purchasing and federal information sharing laws and a new law that allowed police chiefs to deny a firearm license to someone considered unfit to have a weapon.
“If the Senate does something in a vacuum, that doesn’t help anyone,” O’Connor Ives said.
Characterizing Massachusetts’ current gun laws as “very strong,” Sen. Eric Lesser said the state “has the right approach, so we need to really put our foot on the gas in terms of getting Congress to do something.”
Last week, Chandler and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr sent a letter to leaders of the U.S. House and Senate, urging them to take bipartisan action on gun law reform.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration, frankly some fear, that here in Massachusetts we’ve stepped up, we’ve passed laws to protect our citizens, yet we’re still vulnerable because states around us aren’t stepping up and doing the same thing,” Lesser said.
Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, said he thinks there are still some areas where Massachusetts can go further on its gun laws, pointing to the possibility for more coordination among different levels of law enforcement and “potentially the bill around people with mental illness having access to guns.”