State task force outlines 44 recommendations to reduce gun violence

State task force outlines 44 recommendations to reduce gun violence

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Expert pistol shooter Dave Roberts of Vineyard Haven takes aim during a past event at the Martha's Vineyard Rod and Gun Club shooting range. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

All private firearms sales should be completed through a licensed dealer, live-fire training should be required for those seeking a license, and the state should comply in a limited capacity with the National Instant Background Check System, according to the long-awaited recommendations of a team of experts advising House Speaker Robert DeLeo on gun policy.

While concluding that Massachusetts “already has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation,” Mr. DeLeo’s Committee to Reduce Gun Violence offered 44 recommendations to reduce gun violence and gun suicide, to improve public safety, and to standardize gun licensure throughout the state.

“Virtually every gun begins as a legal gun, in the hands of someone who passed a background check,” the task force wrote in a 23-page report, noting that most gun owners handle their weapons lawfully, and suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths.

“The Committee recognizes that changes such as those proposed in this report may be challenging, but if adopted, provides a pathway to further reduce gun violence in the Commonwealth,” the task force wrote in its conclusion.

The committee headed by Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice expert and dean at Northeastern University, recommended no changes to the restriction limiting large-capacity magazines to 10 rounds.

Many gun owners, including Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican, have experienced long delays in their re-licensing, a problem that spurred the committee to recommend gun licenses remain valid until they are re-approved or denied by the state.

The committee also recommended doing away with the Class B license, which allows people to carry non-concealed non-high-capacity weapons, and for additional suitability requirements for those applying for a firearm identification card — which is easier to obtain than a concealed-carry permit.

The task force recommended school resource officers be approved jointly by police and school officials, increased social workers in schools, and higher penalties for unauthorized possession of a gun on school grounds.

The task force’s recommendations could start the ball rolling on gun legislation on Beacon Hill.

“The committee urges that any legislative changes not further stigmatize individuals with mental disorders nor ostracize individuals from seeking treatment and services,” the report said.

The task force found people with mental disorders are more likely to be the victim of violence, and said the groups with a heightened risk for future violence are people convicted of a violent misdemeanor, people subject to a domestic violence restraining order, people convicted of two or more intoxicated driving crimes in a period of five years, and people convicted of two or more misdemeanors involving a controlled substance in a period of five years.

The report also notes the relative safety Massachusetts residents enjoy. Between 2001 and 2010, the nation’s per capita gun homicide rate was 2.5 times higher than that in Massachusetts; total gun deaths were 3 times higher in the nation at large; and nationally people committed suicide by gun at a rate 3.5 times higher than in Massachusetts. Generally 13 percent of Bay State households report having a gun, putting it near the lowest gun ownership rate in America, below Hawaii and sometimes below New Jersey.

In summary

Recommendations included working with police officials to develop a set of factors used to determine what constitutes a suitable person for gun ownership and licensure.

In the report, the committee wrote, “Current Massachusetts law does much to prohibit unsuitable persons from acquiring firearms, but the Committee believes that the current system could be improved… In Massachusetts the current licensing system is confusing to many and causes local police officials to spend extra effort deciding on the type of license that is appropriate. The committee recognizes that there have been many complaints that the lack of specific suitability standards has made the application process inconsistent throughout the municipalities in Massachusetts. The committee also believes that placing a definition of suitability in statute will not provide the necessary flexibility and discretion needed in allowing the licensing authority to make a reasoned decision.”

Firearms safety courses should be required to include “an extensive live fire component,” and the safety courses should be standardized and accredited, with a module on suicide.

The state should narrow its parameters for reporting to the National Instant Background Check System and go into compliance with that system. “The Committee believes that only individuals who are drug dependent, substance abusers or have mental illness based upon a judicial finding of either substance abuse or mental illness and a likelihood of serious harm should be reported to NCIS. Individuals who seek voluntary treatment or are involuntarily hospitalized for assessment and evaluation should not be reported,” the report said.

GOAL faults findings

The state’s largest gun owners group released a critique of the recommendations, concluding that experts appointed by Speaker Robert DeLeo, who characterized the state’s gun laws as among the strongest in the nation, failed to recognize the inability of those laws to stem the rising tide of gun violence even amid a decline in the number of licensed gun owners.

“Since 1998, gun violence in the Commonwealth has increased over 200 percent,” said Jim Wallace, Executive Director of the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL).  “If you fail to recognize the symptoms of the failure of the Massachusetts gun law, you cannot properly recommend a legislative cure.”

GOAL supports some recommendations by the task force, according to the report, including no further restrictions on magazine capacity, a streamlining of the license renewal process and the elimination of Class B licenses, which allow people to carry non-concealed non-high-capacity weapons, but are seldom sought in Massachusetts.

The group opposes the new “suitability” standard that the task force recommended that would allow police chiefs to determine whether applicants for gun licenses and firearm identification cards are suitable to own a weapon.

“It has always been GOAL’s contention that the “suitability” clause is unconstitutional as it stands. There should never be an instance where citizens should have to prove their suitability or need to exercise a civil right. As such, the suitability clause should be stricken as a whole,” the report states.

GOAL called the proposal to require that all private gun sales go through a licensed dealer a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist because in Massachusetts background checks are already required for all sales. The group also said it opposes preventing convicting felons of receiving an FID card, suggesting the proposal should be modified to allow non-violent felons to receive a permit.

GOAL also called for a discussion as to why current gun trafficking laws have been unsuccessful in taking illegal guns off the street.