OPINION

Too many bullets, too many guns, and the buck stops on Beacon Hill

Senate introduces its entry into the anti-gun violence effort with support from police chiefs.

When eight people were shot and hundreds forced to flee during last summer's J'ouvert celebration, Boston police linked most of the damage to two shooters wielding makeshift machine guns capable of firing dozens of rounds of ammunition -- the latest innovation in homemade gun technology, the latest threat to public safety.

It's not unusual to get to a crime scene and find "that over 100 shots have been fired, sometimes in less than 10 seconds," Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said at a news conference last week in support of the state Senate's new gun reform bill. Again, the result of Glock switches or "sear switches" -- often used to modify the increasingly common do-it-yourself, unregistered ghost guns. Ryan said Cambridge and Somerville alone recorded more than 20 shootings involving ghost guns and young people in 2023.

Massachusetts may have the lowest gun death rate in the nation, but time and technology do not stand still.

"I want to make sure we are keeping our legislation up to day," Senate President Karen Spilka told the Globe editorial board in explaining the Senate's version of a gun violence prevention bill -- the SAFER Act -- scheduled for floor debate Thursday. "Even though our gun safety laws are among the best in the country, I want Massachusetts to continue to be a model."

Members of the Massachusetts House, which passed its own version of a bill to overhaul the state's firearms laws last October, no doubt share that goal. The problem will be -- as it too often is on Beacon Hill -- reconciling two different approaches.

The Senate version at some 35 pages is more concise that the 126-page House effort and, Spilka was quick to note, has the advantage of gaining the support of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, which opposed the House bill, and of a number of district attorneys, including Ryan.

"At the end of the day it has to be enforceable," Agawam Police Chief Eric Gillis, head of the chiefs association, said at last week's news conference. "Whatever this body does has to be carried out by people in our sphere, and when it's distilled down and simple and makes sense, it's going to work. So that's what works for us."

The most critical elements of both bills are their emphasis on outlawing those untraceable ghost guns, requiring serial numbers on gun frames in order to be licensed, and outlawing the ownership of devices designed to make semiautomatic weapons more lethal (those Glock switches or auto sears).

Both bills also make improvements to the state's "red flag" law, which allows a court to require an individual to surrender a license to carry and their firearms if that person poses a risk to themselves or others. Currently only family members and police can apply for such an order. The Senate bill adds health care providers (who have provided services to that person within the last six months). The House bill would also add school administrators and employers, along with health care providers, wisely making it broader than the Senate version.

Both bills also seek to update state law on where guns can be carried in the wake of a 2022 US Supreme Court decision that curtailed New York's strict right-to-carry law. The Senate bill would ban guns in government administration buildings, including courthouses. Senate majority leader Cynthia Creem, point person on the bill, said it wasn't necessary to add schools to the list (as the House bill does) because state law already prohibits possessing guns in schools (except by law enforcement). But the Senate bill also allows individual communities to opt-out of the municipal building gun ban, raising the prospect of having guns banned in Concord Town Hall but not, say, in neighboring Bedford. Seriously? There's something to be said for uniformity in gun laws.

The Senate bill would keep police departments in charge of the annual inspections of local gun dealers -- inspections that haven't been happening in some towns, according to recent Globe reports -- but give the State Police a role in back-stopping those inspections. The House bill turns the inspection process over to the State Police. With yet another State Police scandal breaking this week, perhaps this isn't the best time to turn over one more responsibility to the troubled agency.

None of these differences ought to be deal-breakers, though. When it comes to the basics of what needs to be done to update the state's gun laws, there is more that unites the two approaches taken by the House and the Senate than divides them. In the end most Massachusetts residents won't care who stands behind the governor when the bill gets signed, which committee held the longest hearing, or whether a less than critical element zigs or zags. What they do care about is whether their communities will be safer next year than they are right now and whether law enforcement will have the tools it needs to make that happen.

In this shortened legislative session, lawmakers need to keep their priorities straight and their eyes on that prize.

-- Boston Globe. February 1, 2024.

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