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.