Update on the Gun Bill

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.


Published by Will Brownsberger

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

18 replies on “Update on the Gun Bill”

  1. Will,

    Thanks for this report on the gun safety bill approved by the Senate on Thursday. It’s helpful to know your thinking about some of the many issues that are involved in gun violence.

    I also want to thank you for voting to extend discretion to local police chiefs in issuing FID cards. Although you were in the minority, you and like-minded senators were voting for an important provision that would help keep guns out of the wrong hands. I hope that provision will be restored by the Conference Committee, and the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence is working to that end.

    As someone involved in the gun violence prevention movement and a representative of my church in the Mass Coalition, I’ve never heard nor thought myself that the solution to gun violence was to “take guns away.” That’s not going to happen. What we do advocate is a broad public health approach to gun violence, and we are working to reduce the many ways guns do fall into the wrong hands, which sadly include the hands of family, friends and neighbors of law abiding gun owners. (Safe storage of firearms is essential.) The Senate bill, with its kitchen sink feel, is a start on that approach, building on the good laws that we do have in Massachusetts.

    Personally, I have come to feel that as a law-abiding citizen, I could no longer ignore the increasing devastation of gun violence in our communities. Like many, I was prompted by Sandy Hook and still more recently by the January murders of nine young people in a very small area of Boston. All those victims and their families are our neighbors. I ask that you continue working on behalf of all of us to prevent such mayhem.

  2. Will,

    Thanks for the update. Realizing I’m one of the most vocal contributors on here regarding this topic, I’m pleased overall with how this process has gotten to so far. It’s also been very, um, interesting to watch the process.

    Regarding enhanced sentencing for gun crimes, Rep. Heroux, during the hearings, made the point that what criminals fear isn’t the length of the sentence, but the likelihood of actually being sentenced. I don’t know how that is solved through legislation, but I think it’s something that the legislature should consider.

    Regarding discretionary FIDs not going the way you hoped, I think it’d be worthwhile to investigate what the history is on this topic. I would imagine there’s a fair bit of data on how many people who were issued FIDs later proved to not be worthy of having them. Also, as I previously mentioned, the type of guns allowed by FIDs are generally not the type of guns most gun control advocates worry about.

    In any event, thanks for putting up with my browbeating on this topic.

    1. Paul, your point is very well taken about the ineffectiveness of sentencing enhancements. That’s one of the areas of the bill that I don’t like. Hopefully, that will fade some in conference.

      Agreed that more data on FID consequences would be good — it was a tough call. But I’m not sure data exist that would really nail down the question — we have to make a lot of hazy judgement calls in this business. In this instance, we have to make guesstimates about how police chiefs will behave with additional, but controlled discretion.

      1. Will,

        Perhaps I’m missing something, but there’s certainly easy to come by data on who in this state has an FID or an LTC. I’d hope there’s also good data on who had an FID or LTC revoked. The police chiefs should know this and the DCJIS should know this. After all, it’s part of the background check done for getting an LTC or FID in the first place.

        Anything related to the BoR is supposed to be subject to strict scrutiny if we’re talking about the federal appeals process. I’d hope the legislature would make some effort towards researching effectiveness when enacting laws that touch on this area.

        1. Agreed that the data exists on who has licenses, but the data does not really exist on whether they are all sound license holders or how the licensed universe would change if police chiefs had more discretion with FID issuance. One could do some sampling and have an independent re-evaluation of the soundness of the licensees, but that would be expensive and intrusive.

          1. The set of FID holders is relatively small (32k according to Comm2A: http://www.comm2a.org/index.php/8-home/197-licensing). I have to believe it’d be fairly easy look at who had an FID over the years and from that set, who committed a crime of any type. I realize that’s not quite the same as who chiefs would deny if they had discretion, but it’s pretty close. Further, it would make sense to do some case studies on who chiefs would have denied if they had the chance, but where that person hadn’t committed an actual crime.

            I’m willing to bet the real numbers on any these studies would be exceedingly small.

            1. An interesting study — data is good. This won’t shed light on the current iteration of gun legislation, but might in the future. If a change is made, some before and after comparisons could be done.

  3. Hi Will and others,
    Having 38 years of military and law enforcement experience gives me insight to the gun problems. I am a responsible gun owner and have been since my late teens. I thank my older brother for the safe introduction as a young boy. I, as do many of my family, relatives, and friends, enjoy target shooting. Some hunt and consume the meats as do people buying meat at a grocery store. We, and I feel I can speak for my circle, do not want dangerous people, unqualified people, or criminals acquiring guns. If new rules can help accomplish that without harming us than we are in favor. Gun licensing should be standardized and nationalized as is Commercial Driving Licenses. Having a natural instinct to protect people, I carry a gun at all times. Luckily, due to federal law, I am able to carry concealed anywhere in the country. Few have that right. The most beautiful places in the country are mostly in isolated areas. Criminals lurk where people are easy prey. I would never take my family to many beautiful places without the ability to protect them from harm. I have witnessed the tragic and sometimes deadly results of many people who were unable to protect themselves. Police never arrive in time. People who haven’t disqualified themselves need to and have a right to be able to protect themselves and others, or just use firearms for the legal enjoyment. We can work together on this.
    David Benoit

  4. Will,

    Has the Senate (or the House for that matter) discussed how they will measure the success of this legislation? How will you know if it goes far enough, or in the right direction? This discussion seems more binary than necessary–take away all guns or take away none. What consideration was given to taking away those armaments, or accessories such as banana clips, that are design for killing people, while letting hunters and target shooters continue their lawful activities? Also, does the legislation provide for funding the many good ideas mentioned above? If not, then it would be easy to conclude it is little more than just talk.

    Sincere Regards,

    Tim Riley

    1. Outcome measurement? I wish we could do more of it. This echoes the point made above by Paul Wilson about more data. We need to move further in this direction, but there are real limits especially when we make many legislative changes at once.

      Most of the measures that we enact are really tools for others to use to achieve goals. For example, sentencing enhancements have near zero impact in themselves — most criminals aren’t reading the rules: It’s about whether police, prosecutors, the courts and correctional institutions can make cost-effective use the tools. In most instances, it’s extremely difficult to play through the impacts of our changes.

      I personally favor an approach to legislation that makes fewer, well-vetted adjustments to the framework — we have a better shot of knowing what we are doing. I tend to be uncomfortable with “kitchen-sink” bills.

      We do already ban assault weapons in Massachusetts. There was a lot of early discussion about banning additional weapons and components, but those ideas fell to the cutting room floor.

      Some elements of the bill are unfunded mandates, especially in the school safety area, so we’ll have to do some more work to make them reality.

      1. Will,

        Thanks for bringing me up to speed–clearly I’m late to the discussion thread. Although the bill may be imperfect, or go as far as some would like, it is a further step in the right direction. Thanks for your leadership on this issue.


  5. Thanks for your vote and for your recap and getting comments. I recall that the Commission’s report as a final item called for legislation to mitigate the circumstances that result in urban violence- attention to economic development in areas of high unemployment, for example. What might be done in this regard?

  6. Will,

    Realizing it’s out of the senate’s hands at this point, I find it quite ridiculous that MCOPA is, at the same time, arguing they should have the ability to decide who can own a shotgun or rifle (especially when the Boston chief said “nobody *needs* a shotgun or rifle”) and that police officers (including retired) should be allowed to own guns and magazines that are outlawed by the assault weapons ban. Are retired police officers really a special class of citizen? Also, there are stats out there showing police officers are, if anything, more likely to misuse a firearm.

    Very disappointing.

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