Summarizing the Conversation through January 15

I’m very grateful to the dozens of people who have offered thoughts in this forum on gun violence.

It is clear that at least one, and perhaps, several comprehensive anti-violence packages will be filed and considered in this legislative session. The thoughts expressed in this forum will help guide me through the continuing conversation.

I’ve read all the comments carefully through today and as a way of continuing the conversation, I want to summarize what I’ve heard.

All commenters, regardless of their views on gun control, share horror of gun violence. The strategies for addressing gun violence fall into the following broad categories.

I. Limitations on what weapons the public can own.

A) Prohibition of some kinds of weapons and equipment. Unless I missed someone’s drift, there was general consensus in this forum on the prohibition of assault weapons — i.e., powerful guns with high-capacity magazines. At the same time, I also didn’t hear anyone calling for an outright prohibition on hand gun ownership. Essentially, most people recognize that there is a need to draw a line between weapons of mass destruction and the weapons protected by the Second Amendment. Most people seemed to be comfortable drawing that line at assault weapons.

Massachusetts does have an assault weapons ban in place already, but many weapons are still grandfathered and the definitions could be strengthened. While most agree on the need for a reinstatement of the federal ban, it is meaningful to strengthen the state ban — the tragedy in Sandy Hook occurred as a result of assault weapons poorly secured in the home of a lawful gun owner. Any strengthening of prohibition should be followed by a buyback program to take weapons off the street and out of homes; several made the point that weapons bought back should be actually destroyed.

Other possible targets of prohibition include body armor (seen as giving shooters a sense of invincibility), powerful categories of ammunition, and certain accessories for guns — flash suppressors, etc.

B) Limitations on quantities of weapons. Regulations of quantity of weapons or ammunition that may be purchased or owned — in total, or during a given period.

C) Discouragement of gun ownership through taxation. Sales taxation, registration fees, property taxation. Some argued that this would merely punish honest owners, but it might also discourage holding of extravagant stockpiles that could fall into the wrong hands.

D) Enforcement. The point was made repeatedly that we do have relatively strong gun laws in Massachusetts and that we should enforce them. Certainly that is a given. I didn’t hear clear evidence that we aren’t doing so. As someone with some experience both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, my perception is that our gun laws are pretty strongly enforced.

II. Limitations on which members of the public can own weapons.

A) Limitations on ownership by people with mental health issues. At a minimum, that means prohibiting ownership by people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions to protect themselves or others. Currently, there is a reporting system in place to provide records of involuntary commitments for federal background check purposes. Improving reporting compliance in Massachusetts is something people broadly support.

In Massachusetts, there is no discretion on the part of a police chief to deny a rifle license (FID card) to a person of doubtful mental stability. It may make sense to set higher standards for issuance of FID cards. Chiefs do have some discretion in the issuance of licenses to carry hand guns, but even as to LTC’s, more disclosure of mental health issues could be required. No one seemed to be calling for a public registry of all mental health treatment episodes, which would have a huge potential to invade privacy and discourage necessary treatment of a wide variety of conditions. But there is interest in requiring some degree of waiver of privacy rights as to mental health records at the time of gun licensing. This could be coupled with shorter re-licensing periods.

B) Training requirements. Apparently, there is a range of training and safety certification requirements imposed de facto by police chiefs in the issuance of licenses to carry. Certainly training can reduce the risk of accidents and also encourage safe storage of weapons.

C) Extending waiting periods. Discourage transactions at times of passion or frustration.

D) Raising age for licensing eligibility. Currently 15 for FID cards.

III. Strengthening of Control Systems


A) Distribution Controls. Generally people felt that all transactions should be limited to face-to-face transactions in licensed dealerships. Concerns were expressed about gun show sales, internet sales and private sales. How, exactly, the existing framework should be tightened was not fully fleshed out in the forum discussions.

B) Databases. The police do know who is licensed to have firearms, but there are enough loopholes in the reporting of gun and ammunition transactions, that it appears that no one knows for sure who has weapons or whether they are stockpiling ammunition. There were differences in the forum as to whether information about ownership should be publicly available, but considerable interest in strengthening transaction reporting (which, in turn, would support maintenance of a registry of weapon ownership and ammunition consumption/stockpiling). The extent of existing federal reporting systems was not fully fleshed out in the forum discussions.

C) Gun storage rules. We could, by law, regulate the kind of storage for guns that people have in their homes. Or we could require storage outside the home at some of type of licensed facility, for some or all guns. Some forum participants objected to gun club storage as impractical.

IV. Liability and Insurance


This is a complicated area that drew interest in the forum, but remained vague. Conversations within the statehouse are similar — most people aren’t quite sure how this should work. Essentially the hope is that we could unleash market forces that would:

  • Discourage ownership of excessively dangerous weapons.
  • Encourage safe storage practices.
  • Encourage owners to attend to the mental health of all persons in their household.
  • Encourage gun sellers to screen purchasers.
  • Encourage gun manufacturers to sell safer guns, including guns that are biometrically locked to all but their owners.

I understand that some of my colleagues will file legislation in this area, but it will be placeholder legislation, in need of substantial evolution and clarification.

V. Improving Mental Health Screening and Care


A) Reporting. Apart from disclosure at the time of gun licensing, it was suggested that we could seek to strengthen our identification of people with mental health conditions disposing them to violence. It was suggested that the public could be better educated to recognize signs of dangerous mental illness, protected from liability for reporting dangerous mental illness and also that liability could be imposed on those who fail to do so.

Privacy and stigma concerns aside, this is an exceedingly difficult proposition — it’s very hard to predict who is going to snap. Everyone has down days and many have severe depression or rage, but mass murderers are one in 10 million. It’s hard to imagine how members of the general public could get a lot better at screening out truly violent people. Our mental health systems are already swamped and, even now, can’t respond every time someone gets worried about someone else.

B) Better mental health care. What certainly does make sense is stronger availability of mental health care, including inpatient mental health care. Some shared very poignant private stories with me offline — families caring for young adults with severe mental illness suffer great hardship. Once kids pass the age of 22, the school systems have no obligation to provide support. Many aging families struggle to create a framework in which challenged and occasionally dangerous young people, disproportionately young men, can maintain stability.

VI. Controlling Cultural Influences


A) Regulate exposure of kids to gratuitous violence in entertainment. Movies and television expose kids to acts of violence. Video games in which kids act as killers may be especially pernicious. Our sound national commitment to free speech, as interpreted by our Supreme Court, does limit government ability to regulate entertainment. And so far, the evidence is inconclusive as to whether violent entertainment actually provokes violence (or whether there is a mere correlation — violent people like violent entertainment). This does merit further study and I expect to file a bill calling for further study.

B) Encourage media literacy. One forum author tied media literacy education to violence prevention. If kids can be more critical of what they are viewing, they may be less subject to dangerous influences.

C) Social marketing. The state could undertake to convey anti-gun, anti-violence and safety messages as it has conveyed anti-smoking messages. How these messages are framed, targeted and delivered would all be difficult questions — sometimes messages can backfire. This is an idea that may make sense, but needs careful thought.

D) Better parenting and spiritual change. Perhaps, it was suggested, parents can do a better job protecting kids from violent influences and we can all turnaway from the sick entertainment foisted on us by Hollywood capitalists. May it be so. This is certainly a legitimate goal for people campaigning through media, literature, and faith groups.

VII. Improving Public Safety Measures


A) School Safety. Many have expressed concern to insure that we are doing adequate safety planning in schools. Schools do already face a state mandate to annually prepare and their safety plans and instruct their staff and students on the plan. One commenter did urge the training of at least some school staff in firearm usage and require them to bear arms. I’m skeptical of this direction — it could create new risks and, at the same time, offer little protection against the threat of a school invasion as in Sandy Hook.

B) Public safety generally. I didn’t hear among the suggestions a general strengthening of law enforcement. General law enforcement can’t anticipate a Sandy Hook, but general law enforcement strategies do have a role in reducing the sadly routine street violence that claims many more young lives than the occasional outbursts of insane mass violence.

VIII. State Investments

Some urged disinvestment by state and local pension funds in firearms manufacturers. This is certainly a very indirect measure.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

18 replies on “Summarizing the Conversation through January 15”

  1. I think your summary should include the viewpoint of those who are concerned by the restrictions as being an infringement on the 2nd amendment and furthermore not addressing the root problems. For example, all of Boston’s gun murders were committed with handguns. As we have seen in other locations like NYC, D.C. and Chicago these restrictions lead to all out bans except for the well connected or criminals. This is also the path taken in other countries that started out with restrictions and ended up with complete bans.

    The original intent of the 2nd amendment should be discussed. We should have a conversation about why the founders insisted on the 2nd amendment in the Bill or rights in the same way we would have a conversation about why we have a 1st or 4th amendment. If we feel it no longer is needed than we go through the process to amend the Constitution.

  2. Good afternoon Senator (and forum participants),

    I’m a gun enthusiast who voted for both President Obama and Senator Warren and, as such, I consider myself exceptionally centrist in this debate. I have no objection to the president’s executive orders, and I haven’t heard anything in Gov. Patrick’s proposals which causes me concern. There are two points which I’d like to weigh in on:

    1) Public information regarding gun ownership. Private gun ownership is a significant deterrent to criminals. Public disclosure of which homes have guns in them would significantly weaken this effect and further the portrayal of gun owners as people who are dangerous. This is offensive and I honestly don’t see the plus side of a measure such as this.

    2) Liability insurance for gun owners. Already, as a Boston resident, obtaining a license to carry is expensive, tedious, and time consuming. I think all the current measures in place to restrict gun ownership to those well-suited for it through mandated safety classes, background checks, interviews, and an accuracy test, are NOT excessive or overbearing. Liability insurance is a bridge too far in that the net impact would be a simple increase in the cost of owning a gun.

    Legislation of this sort must be restricted to areas of public policy in which there is a significant problem to address. Continuing with the auto insurance analogy – auto liability insurance makes sense because absent this coverage requirement, there would be a big problem for a lot of people. Can anyone, in good faith and with intellectual honesty, assert that there is a large-scale problem that requires a legislative response? i.e. a significnat number of civil judgements against lawful gun owners which result in plaintiffs who are left without fair compensation due to the gun owner’s inability to pay? I very highly doubt that this is the case and, as such, view this measure as nothing more than a further penalty to law-abiding gun owners which is meant to make guns more expensive as an effort to dissuade people from owning them. If a middle-ground compromise is to be reached on this issue then it must specifically avoid unfairly impacting lawful and responsible gun owners.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

  3. Since the only purpose of any gun is to kill, I am one of those Pro Gun Control citizens that offend the NRA and GOAL. I can see the fun of target shooting and in that case guns could stay locked up at a gun club. While hunters seem to need sustenance from their prey, rifles could also be locked up except when hunting but no one needs an assault weapon, an automatic weapon to hunt or for target practice: instant venisonburger or blown-apart target.
    I applaud the letter to the Globe that pointed out that the authors of our Constitution were talking about a “militia’ for defense and safety. That militia would have been armed with muskets/flintlocks and would have had a hard time taking out a room full of schoolchildren or adults before someone belted them with a chair! Let everyone carry muskets! Hard to conceal, hard to use impulsively and probably pretty inaccurate! In addition, does not the National Guard provide such a militia in its original purpose? We also have our police force for public protection.
    That’s enough for me. Statistics have shown that privately owned handguns are often turned against the owner, stolen and used in crimes.
    Outnumbered I am and sad to see the violent state of this country.

  4. I appreciate the comments — I think liability insurance has the potential to bring insurers into the mix as advocates for safe practices. However, the thought is quite unformed at this stage of the conversation — it needs more definition; no one is quite sure how it would work.

    I share concern about public disclosure of gun ownership. That does verge into privacy and safety issues.

  5. @Carolyn

    Nobody has automatic weapons, lest they were manufactured before 1986 (when such weapons were banned) and cost insane amounts of money to procure. All guns available to civilians are semi-automatic, technology that has existed for over 100 years. Semi-automatic weapons play a big part in home defense.

    The topic of school shootings, I understand, is very emotional, but we need to approach the topic rationally with logic. That person has committed a horrible crime, and did not let any law prevent them from doing so. Additional laws would likely not stop them either. If you think there is a reasonable, and realistic way to get rid of guns entirely, including ones from criminals, that would be the only real way to prevent such things.

    No matter how hard you try, you’d be hard pressed to “conceal” a rifle.. they’re quite long and awkward to carry.

    The national guard does not serve as a militia for the people. It is an extension of the US Military.

  6. Thanks for clarification on automatic and semi automatic, my point being either is unnecessary to blast apart something. Globe recently cited handguns for more deaths than assault weapons. However assault weapon can do more damage rapidly as already proven. Now the NH Police Chiefs Assoc is raffling them off, brilliant! Clearly mental illness is another issue here.
    I think you misread my comment: of course rifles are hard to conceal, as would be a musket!! I believe the Columbine kids managed under long coats though.
    Pro gun and anti gun activists could talk all day and cite conflicting statistics, but hey, talking is better than shooting!

  7. Carolyn, without a doubt, your heart is in the right place, and I commend you for that. However, unless there is a way to remove all guns off the streets, legal and illegal, we should be wary as to how we limit law abiding citizens from protecting themselves against criminals. In a high-risk situation between myself and an armed assailant, the law abiding citizen should not be the one at a disadvantage.

    Agreed that handguns certainly account for the vast majority of gun violence. I think you’d also find through various government sources that the majority of said violence was portrayed by gangs and criminals, not law abiding citizen.

  8. Thanks for the link Senator! A couple thoughts/questions on it:

    Background checks, yes, totally. This should be done in the first place. Personally, I have no issue conducting private sales for a small additional fee at a firearm dealer (or FFL). I know some take issue with this, but I see no harm in it personally.

    Prohibiting high risk individuals from getting firearms? Again, some smart things we should be doing in the first place.

    Mental health screening. Always a good thing!

    Personalization of firearms, I’m not quite sure what they mean here?

    “Assault Weapons”. Again, this is a class of weapon which is being demonized for it’s aesthetics, is rarely used in crimes. There have been more stories coming out lately about firearm owners using their AR-15s as a means of self/home defense.

    Banning on the high capacity magazines. Same argument we’ve heard before. It really doesn’t make sense, and I feel as though we should amend out existing AWB here in MA, so that law-abiding citizens can stand on equal footing should they ever find themselves face-to-face with criminals who don’t care about a law saying they can’t have more than a 10-round magazine.

    It’s unfortunate the LAST item is RESEARCH! This should be #1 in my opinion. Before we do ANYTHING, we should do research to better understand the root cause of the issues. Instead of the 1994 AWB, and the subsequent MA AWB, we should have taken a closer look at treating the cause, not the symptoms, as many are looking to do again today. Knowledge is power, and truly important in situations like this. Let’s better understand what is going on before making brash decisions on banning anything.

  9. Thanks, Jason.

    I do favor the limitation on high capacity weapons — when was the last time a law abiding citizen went down in a firefight with a bad guy because he ran out of ammo?

    I’m more concerned about the the young man in mental health crisis who does unspeakable damage to innocents before he gets stopped — those cases are rare too, but less rare than the all out citizen vs. bad-guy firefight.

  10. I’m sorry Senator, but I have to disagree with you.

    I invite you to check out some data from reports such as:

    I would be willing to bet that the number of incidents where a law abiding citizen requires a standard capacity (above 10 is not high, its standard, standard is a relative term used to describe the intended amount for a given weapon really) magazine, is much higher than the number of incidents involving a mentally ill person breaking the law.

    Again keep in mind, the mentally ill who decide to break the law may be mentally ill, but they are still criminals when they break the law. Following rules for magazine capacity will not impact them.

  11. I’d like to address a few parts of the original post. I’ll try to keep this cogent but the forum software doesn’t seem to allow nice outlining.

    ” assault weapons — i.e., powerful guns with high-capacity magazines. At the same time, I also didn’t hear anyone calling for an outright prohibition on hand gun ownership. Essentially, most people recognize that there is a need to draw a line between weapons of mass destruction and the weapons protected by the Second Amendment. Most people seemed to be comfortable drawing that line at assault weapons.”

    Can anyone here define what an “assault weapon” actually is? Do people really think they are that powerful or are “weapons of mass destruction”? I’d be happy to provide explanation of these guns and what they can really do vs. guns that aren’t currently in the media. I really object to the use of artificial terminology like “weapons of mass destruction”.

    “Other possible targets of prohibition include body armor (seen as giving shooters a sense of invincibility), powerful categories of ammunition, and certain accessories for guns — flash suppressors, etc.”

    A flash suppressor is already illegal under the current AWB in MA. What qualifies as a powerful category of ammunition? The ammunition used by a typical deer rifle is already much more powerful than what is used by “assault weapons” as most people think of them.

    “As someone with some experience both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, my perception is that our gun laws are pretty strongly enforced.”

    Can you point to examples of this? Have any weapons been traced through the FA10 system? Has the state or federal government prosecuted a prohibited person who tried to fill out a form 4473?

    “Extending waiting periods. Discourage transactions at times of passion or frustration.”

    From a logical standpoint, this is already taken care of by the licensing system. A person has to have a valid license to buy a firearm in MA. That license, by statute, is supposed to be granted or denied in a 40 day period. As a practical matter, most police departments take much longer to follow through and the individual has no recourse. Presumably, most people who are newly licensed go and buy a firearm.

    “Liability and insurance”

    Law makers should be required to define what liabilities this insurance would cover. If the liability is the damage a 3rd party could cause (ie. a thief steals a gun even though the storage has met any legal requirements), that’s a very onerous precedent that could translate to other areas of liability. Imagine paying to insure against what a car thief might do with a stolen car.

    “School Safety. Many have expressed concern to insure that we are doing adequate safety planning in schools. Schools do already face a state mandate to annually prepare and their safety plans and instruct their staff and students on the plan. One commenter did urge the training of at least some school staff in firearm usage and require them to bear arms. I’m skeptical of this direction — it could create new risks and, at the same time, offer little protection against the threat of a school invasion as in Sandy Hook.”

    With regard to offering little protection, there’s plenty of evidence that shows these mass shootings usually take place in gun free zones. In fact, in a number of these cases, the shooter has killed himself when confronted with an armed individual. As the father of an elementary school aged daughter, it wouldn’t bother me at all to know a principal or vice principal is armed as long as that person has gone through extensive training. As an alternative, non lethal defense weapons such as tasers or pepper spray could be useful and would certainly be better than nothing when confronted by one of these situations.

    Finally, with regards to magazine capacity, I’m sure someone like Governor Patrick always travels with a security detail. Further, the officers in that detail are always carrying firearms with magazines of greater than 10 round capacity. Why? If you look at any situation that one of these type of officers have been confronted with, it’s always been a single shooter (I’d be happy to be shown evidence to the contrary) and there are multiple people in the security detail. By contrast, there are home invasion cases that can be pointed to where the home owner could have certainly used more than 10 rounds.

  12. I thought I wrote this here, but couldn’t find it. I’d like your opinion, Will.

    Basically, does the main body of the Constitution give the Legislature and Executive some power over the militia that the Second Amendment discusses? And if that’s the case, do Articles I and II provide another route to dealing with guns and gun violence?

    The Second Amendment says “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

    Article I, Section 8 gives the Legislature some rights over the militia:
    “The Congress shall have Power…
    • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
    • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…”

    Article II, Section 2 gives the Executive some powers over the militia:
    “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States”

  13. Rereading all the pros and cons since January, I find Hal’s comments/questions particularly poignant. How in the world did these Articles get turned into excuses for gun ownership? “A well regulated militia….” couldn’t be clearer. With these regulations relating to a militia, how did the Supreme Court interpret this to mean that the general citizenship may own guns as a right?
    With avid gun owners defending their rights to be armed, the powerful NRA/GOAL lobby and the increased violence portrayed in the media, how could any politician expect to survive supporting extensive gun control? We are in a trap from which there is no escape.

    Various sections of Will’s excellent summary of divergent opinions, per ex. section IV, repeat the word “encourage” as a role for the state. Unfortunately that is a weak and hopeful word totally unrelated to ‘regulate, enforce, control”, words that might make a difference but would be a challenge to put in play.

    Finally: the claims that viewing violence does not feed violent behavior have been studied repeatedly since before 1963-64 when I studied the literature extensively at Harvard. There were results supporting both sides of the issue. However in 34 years of teaching I saw a marked increase in violent play in my young students that began, oddly enough, with the debut of Batman on TV and escalated from there with the media. Adults could see the attempts at humor or irony but not the concrete thinking child. Children have little impulse control, a weak sense of reality and act out what they see. Even adolescents are susceptible and easily stimulated by viewing violence. There is no doubt in my mind that violent games, movies and TV stimulate violent behavior in easily influenced people. The industry has found that increasing levels of graphic violence are needed to keep people engaged so they happily comply. There are studies that show that people become desensitized to the pain of others when repeatedly exposed to aggression.
    Having a gun at hand makes fatally aggressive acts very easy and impersonal.

    As long as there have been humans on earth, there has been violence. Civilization’s goal should be to keep people safe and healthy. Interesting how achieving both these goals has always been a worldwide struggle!

  14. A minor aside: obsessive use of violent video games also indicates a
    lack of parental involvement, supervision and control which also can be
    a factor in the acting out of fantasies and revenge. As usual the human
    variables are one of the major challenges to constructing a tightly
    controlled research study. Empowering and educating parents might help, but how to accomplish that?!!
    Thanks for your work and responses. C

  15. Carolyn,

    Regarding “the powerful NRA/GOAL lobby”, GOAL consists of about 5 people who work for the organization and 16,000 members. They only have one person that does any form of lobbying at the state house. The NRA is essentially nowhere to be found in Massachusetts.

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