Aching for the Sandy Hook children and for the teachers who gave the last full measure of devotion trying to save them, many are asking once again what we can do to better protect innocent people. To substantially reduce handgun and assault weapon availability, we need a federal solution.
From the facts of the case as they continue to emerge in the press, it appears that the shooter’s mother legally purchased the semiautomatic Bushmaster .223 assault rifle that the shooter used in the school. Allowing these weapons to be available to the general public, even with background checks, makes it all too likely that they will fall into the wrong hands.
The opportunity for legislative action on the issue in Massachusetts is limited because (a) Massachusetts already has strong gun laws and (b) so many other states have weak laws and guns can easily cross state lines.
- The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks Massachusetts 3d in the country for the strength of its gun laws and grades it an A- overall.
- It is against the law to possess an assault weapon in Massachusetts, as a result of laws passed in 1998 and extended in 2004 with the support of Governor Romney. The ban grandfathers weapons acquired lawfully before September 13, 1994, the date that the ten-year federal assault weapons ban was passed. See this advisory from the Firearms Records Bureau for more. See also these explanatory pieces from gun groups — Gun Owners Action League and Northeast Shooters.
- Only six states other than Massachusetts — New York, California, New Jersey, and in narrower forms, Hawaii, Connecticut and Maryland– have enacted assault weapons bans, according to surveys of state laws found in Wikipedia and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
- It is against the law to purchase or carry a handgun in Massachusetts without a license to carry granted by a police department. It is possible to purchase or possess a rifle (other an assault rifle) with a lesser license called a firearms identification card. For considerable detail on the regulatory scheme, from the perspective of a prospective gun owner, see the Gun Owner’s Action League.
- By contrast, in the majority of other states in the country, it is possible to purchase rifles, handguns and even assault weapons without any form of permit. See state-by-state data in Wikipedia or from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence does identify some possible improvements in Massachusetts gun laws. We should do what we can to strengthen our existing controls.
Additionally, we should review our school security and emergency plans. The state already requires schools to have plans to address potential shootings. In 2000, in response to the 1999 Columbine school shooting, the legislature included the following language in the state budget for FY01 (Chapter 159 of the Acts of 2000, Section 363):
“Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the superintendent of each school district shall, prior to the beginning of the school year, meet with the fire chief and police chief of the city, town or district to formulate a school specific “Multi-hazard evacuation plan” for each school under the superintendent’s supervision. Said multi-hazard evacuation plan shall encompass, but not be limited to, evacuations for fires, hurricanes and other hazardous storms or disasters in which serious bodily injury might occur, shootings and other terrorist activities, and bomb threats. Said plan shall be designed for each school building after a review of each building. Said plan shall include, but not be limited to: (1) establishment of a crisis response team; (2) a designation as to who is in charge of said team and designated substitutes; (3) a communication plan; (4) crisis procedures for safe entrance to and exit from the school by students, parents and employees; and (5) policies for enforcing school discipline and maintaining a safe and orderly environment during the crisis. Each district, with the assistance of the local police and fire departments, shall annually review and update as appropriate said plan. At the beginning of each school year, students at each school shall be instructed as to the plan that is developed.
Finally, we should consider what more we can do to recognize and address the kinds of personal and mental health issues that create a propensity to mass violence.
It should be clear, however, that to substantially reduce the availability of the kinds of weapons that the Connecticut shooter used, we need a federal solution — guns are all too easy to transport across state lines. Some Democrats in Congress are preparing to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban, but according to the Atlantic Wire, in the Republican-controlled House, that proposal will face some opposition:
[Rep. Louie] Gohmert [of Texas] said Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung could have survived if she had a gun of comparable size in her office when Lanza started shooting. “I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office locked up and so when she heard gunshots … she takes his head off before he can hurt those kids,” he said. Gohmert agreed that the country needs to have a national conversation on gun control, but urged the conversation be “open minded.”
All is lost if we need to have all of our school administrative staff trained in the defensive use of assault weapons. Let us hope that our leaders can come together on this issue at the national level.
Note: Those wishing to express support for federal action can sign a petition to the White House here.