Yesterday, the Senate took up its version of the gun bill and moved it on to a conference committee with the House.
The bill has come a long way from its origins in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. To see how much has changed in the conversation, look back on the gun thread on my website early last year. The ideas with the most energy behind them then were about reducing access to firearms — limiting the types of guns can be owned or the number that can be acquired at one time, taxing guns, requiring more liability insurance for guns. We non-gun-owners have a natural first reaction to gun violence which says “Take away the guns”.
Over the past 18 months, however, many legislators have heard from lawful gun owners in their district who have basically been saying:
Hold on a second, the problem isn’t us. Why are you going to make our lives harder in ways that won’t increase the safety of the public. Take care of the mentally ill, punish bad guys, but don’t change gun laws that are working well as to the good citizens of the state who care about laws.
Even in my relatively urban and progressive district, I’ve heard in this vein from many obviously responsible and thoughtful gun owners. Many of them have posted on this website.
That response from gun-owners, has shifted the conversation substantially. In the Senate bill that we voted yesterday, the main ideas are much more about keeping guns out of the wrong hands than about generally taking away guns:
- Report Massachusetts data more consistently to the national reporting system that alerts firearms dealers to buyers with mental health issues or histories of violence. Historically, Massachusetts has not fully participated in the national system, perhaps out of privacy concerns. Participation in the national system will mean better information for firearms dealers in Massachusetts as well as elsewhere.
- Strengthen school safety protections — strengthen emergency planning, connect two-way safety communications with public safety centers, add police resource officers, fund physical safety upgrades.
- Enhance criminal penalties for violent gun crimes — more punishment for criminals who use guns.
- Improve firearms tracking and the integrity of gun dealers — CORI checks for dealer employees, real time reporting of private gun sales, increased penalties for failure to report lost guns.
- Reduce the discretion of police chiefs to arbitrarily deny licenses to carry by requiring police chiefs to offer written reasons for denial (see further discussion below).
- Improve suicide prevention programs and build awareness of available suicide prevention resources.
- Streamline rules that are unnecessarily burdensome to gun owners — for example, relieve active military officers with military firearms training from an obligation to receive firearms training for licencing.
- Improve data collection about guns and gun violence.
During the debate, the only issue that was controversial enough to lead to a roll call was the issue of suitability for Firearms Identification Cards. Under current law, there are two main categories of licenses — handgun licenses (licenses to carry, LTC’s) and rifle licenses (Firearms Identification Cards or FID cards). To get either kind of license a prospective gun owner must apply to his or her local police chief. The police chief has complete discretion to deny an LTC without reason, but must issue an FID unless the applicant has a criminal record, a history of major mental illness or other disqualifications.
The House version of the bill made a balanced change in these basic rules (a) putting some limits on police chief discretion to deny LTC’s by requiring chiefs to provide written reasons for a denial which could then more effectively be appealed to district court; (b) subject to those new limits, giving police chiefs discretion to deny FIDs. An amendment was offered to strike the language giving police chiefs new discretion to deny FIDs (while preserving the language creating new limits on LTC discretion).
I found this vote a difficult one. Through the years, I have heard enough anecdotes about arbitrary denials of LTCs that I believe it happens. Extending discretion to FID issuance would mean some more arbitrary denials. At the same time, I think it makes obvious sense for some screening to occur and believe that there will be cases where an FID should be denied even though none of the statutory red flags are present. I liked the balance that the House struck which created some additional discretion for FID denials but also added protections against arbitrariness in both FID and LTC denials. In the end, the vote was 28 to 10 against giving chiefs additional discretion to deny FIDs — I voted in the minority, in favor of giving chiefs some controlled discretion to deny FIDs.
That vote behind me, I expect to vote for the final bill — the moving draft includes many positive elements. My hope is that the bill will get a little simpler in the conference process — it has a little bit of a kitchen sink feeling to it right now. For additional detail, please see the Senate’s press release on the bill.