Gun bill draws supporters and opponents to State House hearing

Gintautas Dumcius and Colleen Quinn, State House News Service
Jun. 4, 2014

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz remembers the funeral of 14-year-old Jaewon Martin, an honor student who was shot and killed the day before Mother’s Day in 2010 while playing on a basketball court in Jamaica Plain.

“He was doing everything right and was still lost to gun violence in our city,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat said Tuesday, her voice cracking during an event held before lawmakers heard testimony on legislation aimed at curbing gun violence in the state.

The image and the emotion she recalls the most from the funeral: the faces of other teenage boys walking away from their classmate’s casket.

“And watching the look of fear and despair on their faces, and thinking to myself as a policymaker, as a legislator, as an organizer, as a citizen, how much we are failing these young men,” Chang-Diaz said. “How fearful they are that they could, like their friend Jaewon, how they could do everything right and still maybe not live to see 18. And the weight they carry around in their lives, and the weight their parents carry around.”

Chang-Diaz on Tuesday joined about 100 anti-gun violence activists for a rally ahead of a Joint Committee on Public Safety hearing on House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s gun violence prevention bill (H 4121).

Rep. Harold Naughton (D-Clinton), the co-chair of the committee, told the News Service that the committee plans to vote on the bill this week. During Tuesday’s hearing, Naughton ruled out of order a motion by two committee members to hold additional hearings on the bill in Worcester and Springfield.

Lawmakers supportive of the bill said they hoped to get legislation passed and to the governor’s desk for his approval before formal legislative sessions end on July 31.

Supporters of the bill say the legislation will improve Massachusetts’ gun laws that are already stronger than those of most states while opponents say the bill further burdens legal gun owners while not doing enough to stem violence caused by illegal guns.

The hearing, which started at noon, drew two candidates for governor, lawmakers, and a crowd that appeared to be split between gun rights advocates and members of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence who held in their laps bright yellow-and-orange signs with stop signs on them.

Administration Concerns with Straw Purchasers

Gov. Deval Patrick’s public safety secretary, Andrea Cabral, sounded notes of support for DeLeo’s legislation, calling it a “strong bill” at the rally. But Cabral said the bill could go further and asked the committee to incorporate Patrick’s proposal to limit gun purchases to one a month.

“We need to do more to address the problem of ‘straw purchasers’ — those who buy large supplies of guns within short timeframes intending to traffic them to dealers or sell them in bulk to criminals,” she said in her testimony. “The speaker’s bill, like the governor’s, would further limit the ability of the mentally ill to obtain firearms; pre-existing law prevents convicted felons from possessing firearms. These restrictions are incomplete if a ‘straw purchaser’ may sidestep them by buying weapons for those who would be barred from doing so.”

During the hearing, Cabral tangled with Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, a Southwick Republican.

Boldyga pointed to statistics used by Cabral – 450 guns were purchased in Massachusetts and recovered in criminal investigations in 2012 – and asked who purchased them, what crimes were committed with them, and whether they were through straw purchases.

Cabral said they likely have some information on whether that’s the case, but the state doesn’t track all gun sales.

Boldyga said his understanding was that the state does, prompting applause from gun rights advocates in the room. Naughton admonished them for clapping and asked the audience, “How late do you want to be here?”

Boldyga said as the father of two young children, he also wants to stop gun violence. “We should be enforcing current laws on the books,” he told Cabral.

Coakley and Grossman, Rivals for Corner Office, Weigh In

In his testimony, Treasurer Steve Grossman noted the state has the second lowest firearm fatality rate in the U.S. because of its gun laws. “But I’m not satisfied,” he said.

He said he backed Patrick’s one-gun-a-month proposal, and noted to a reporter that his rival for the Corner Office, Attorney General Martha Coakley, does not.

Coakley can also ensure through regulations that guns have technology that allows only an authorized user to fire it, he said. If toy guns can be regulated as a consumer safety product, “surely she can do the same for real ones.”

Don Berwick, a doctor and a fellow Democrat running for governor, also supports the governor’s one-gun-a-month proposal and appeared at the rally before the hearing.

Coakley used her testimony to criticize the National Rifle Association, registering support for DeLeo’s bill but also calling for federal action.

“The fact that we have seen tragedy after tragedy, and yet the federal government still has yet to pass a federal assault weapons ban or any firearm legislation on the national level is unfathomable to me,” she said. “What’s clear to me is that the NRA has a stranglehold on Congress and it’s costing us lives.

At a gubernatorial debate among Democrats at the Boston Globe later in the day, Coakley said she and Grossman differ in strategies needed to reduce gun violence while the two of them are in agreement on the need to reduce gun violence.

After testifying in support of DeLeo’s bill, Rep. David Linsky, a Natick Democrat who previously filed legislation limiting gun sales to one per month, said he is “cognizant of political realities.” He still supports the inclusion of such a provision, but he said he is “concerned about the level of support” for it in the House and Senate.

Opponents, and Some Supporters, Critique Bill’s ‘Suitability Clause’

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said his organization had hoped to support any legislation that was proposed, but they do not back this bill because it expands police chiefs’ discretion on granting licenses, known as the “suitability clause.”

“To expand something that has been so widely abused is simply unconscionable,” Wallace said.

Wallace argued, under the Second Amendment, it is not incumbent upon a person to prove their suitability. “The burden must be and should be on a government official who wants to remove my constitutional rights,” Wallace said.

Naughton said during public hearings held around the state, lawmakers heard many stories about how decisions by police chiefs about granting licenses differed from one town to another. Naughton said he had hoped when the legislation was drafted, it would include some predictable suitability standards.

Language and transparency around police chiefs’ discretion remains one of the questions that will have to be addressed as the bill moves forward, Naughton said.

Wallace said he has heard policymakers say standards for discretion still need to be worked out once the legislation passes. “Well, number one, we are going to have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it? It seems to me I have heard that before,” Wallace said, making a reference to passage of the federal Affordable Care Act.

A separate group opposed to the bill, Mass Pro 2A, also had members at the hearing. The group posted a video on YouTube on Monday, urging Naughton to “kill the bill” and adding, “You’re targeting the wrong people.”

Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican, raised similar concerns to Wallace. He also pointed to the bill’s tackling of gun suicides. According to the bill, the Department of Public Health would be required to collect data on gun suicides, including when possible, the source where the firearm was purchased; whether it was legally obtained and owned, as well as the length of time between the purchase and the person’s suicide.

The legislation also requires additional suicide awareness at schools, training for doctors, and suicide literature at gun dealers and a hotline phone number on gun licenses. In addition, information about people’s criminal records, substance abuse and mental health treatment would be transferred to National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Peterson said he has lost a friend and a relative to suicide, and neither died through a firearm. If the state plans to ask every firearm dealer to talk about the use of firearms in suicide, then the state should also talk to people who sell ropes and cars, he said. “I don’t think we can just lay the suicide rate on firearms,” Peterson said.

Paul Larkin, legislative director for the New England Police Benevolent Association, supports the bill overall, but said he has concerns about expanding the suitability clause. The way it is written, he said, a police chief could deny a license to anyone convicted of any offense punishable for one year. Under current law, it only applies to those with sentences up to two years.

Many nonviolent offenses are punishable for a year, including for example, swimming in a public water supply, Larkin said.

Jack McDevitt, a member of the task force that studied the issue for more than a year, said the group found inconsistencies in Massachusetts guns laws. Police chiefs described instances where they denied someone a license to carry, based on a history of domestic violence. Then the person would come back and qualify for a shotgun license, McDevitt said.

“We heard from police chiefs, ‘we’ve been to the house multiple times for disturbances; we may not have arrested anybody,’ ” but there is a history of domestic violence, McDevitt said.

McDevitt said Massachusetts refrained from passing a gun bill quickly in the wake of the Newtown school shootings. Other states passed laws more quickly and those laws were later found unconstitutional, he said.

Kim Odom, the mother of a 13-year-old boy murdered in October 2007, said after the Newtown shootings, she grieved for those families because she knows too well the devastating aftermath of such a tragedy. Her son, Steven Odom, was shot in the head and killed while walking home from playing basketball in his Dorchester neighborhood.

She had recommendations for lawmakers. First and foremost, she said, she would like to see the lives of children growing up in urban communities to be valued as much as those in suburban communities like Newtown or Brookline. She also said policymakers and law enforcement need to reduce easy access to guns.

In the seven years since her son’s death, Odom said, she has heard about research and solutions recommended, yet nothing seems to change. “I want lawmakers to stop doing the same thing over and over again, and expect a different result,” she said.