Kicking off a hearing last Thursday on gun legislation at the State House, Public Safety and Homeland Security Co-Chairman Rep. Harold Naughton told two hearing rooms full of people that he had recently returned from a monthlong Army training mission in southwest Asia.
Naughton said he was overseas during the deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 and Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 4, and for the shooting of six Philadelphia police officers during an Aug. 14 standoff.
“It is not an exaggeration for me to say to you that I had several soldiers from those areas of the country that were on that mission say to me that they felt safer where we were than they would have back in their hometowns,” Naughton said.
In the wake of those national headlines, and several shootings in Boston throughout the summer, the committee solicited testimony on 70 firearm-related bills. Themes that emerged during testimony -- and could be areas for further committee exploration -- include addressing urban gun violence, analyzing gun crime data, and preventing illegal trafficking of firearms.
The hours of input from lawmakers, law enforcement officials and members of the public highlighted several disparate concerns for committee members to keep in mind as they consider the bills and potentially draft their own legislation -- such as balancing the rights of gun owners with the desire to keep guns out of the hands of people who will use them for violent acts.
“We have an opportunity today to make a true impact on the effects that illegal firearms have in our commonwealth, but we cannot hesitate to take this opportunity to save lives,” said Rep. Chynah Tyler, a committee member who has sponsored a handful of bills aimed at preventing gun violence. “I’m optimistic that after today’s hearing we will be in a position to put a comprehensive package together to acknowledge that black and brown lives matter, while not infringing on residents’ Second Amendment rights.”
On the heels of a 2014 reform that gave police chiefs more discretion over gun licensing, Massachusetts in 2017 banned bump stocks like the ones used in the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and last year passed a “red flag” law that allows family members to petition the courts to suspend gun ownership rights of someone they believe to be a danger.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he expects “further conversation” on gun laws this session but has not identified specific policies the House will pursue.
During a Wednesday hearing, Gun Owners Action League Executive Director Jim Wallace said he wanted to push back on the idea that Massachusetts gun laws have been successful, saying the number of gun-related homicides in the state has risen over time.
“There is no success with these gun laws, period,” Wallace said. “As a matter of fact, the only thing these gun laws have done is to make the people I represent suffer, who try to get through these laws without being in violation, and, frankly, the inner-city people that are being murdered in record numbers. We need to actually re-address all these laws with the knowledge that they have not been successful.”
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who represents some of the same Boston precincts as Tyler, said her district may be the one in the state that is most affected by gun deaths. The Jamaica Plain Democrat recalled attending the funeral of a teenage shooting victim and seeing his middle-school classmates walk to and from his open casket.
“Watching their faces and wondering what must they be thinking about their chances of survival, when their classmate, who had done everything right -- strong student, wonderful kid by all accounts, not involved in any trouble or street life -- if that’s what happened to him,” she said. “We all know as human beings and as policymakers how terrible it is to feel powerless, but in that moment as a policymaker, we are powerless to bring back that young person and relatively powerless to guarantee to those young children at the Timilty Middle School that this will never happen again to their community. But we do have power here today to tackle the issue of the illegal gun market and make sure we are taking steps to address that problem as urgently as we are taking steps to address mass shootings.”
Wearing a yellow shirt that said “We will not comply” and a “Self-defense is a human right” pin, Galen Miller told committee members their responsibility is to protect the rights of citizens. “It could be one voice out of thousands, and your job is to protect those rights, and I don’t see that happening,” Miller said. “There’s not a soul in here that has [a license to carry a firearm] or carries that doesn’t wish that he was at El Paso or any other area where there’s a dangerous situation. That’s why we carry. We want to protect ourselves and we want to protect our families and we want to protect those around us.”
Ken McKay, who testified alongside Miller, said he had buried friends and relatives lost to drug overdoses and would rather see lawmakers pursuing action against drug dealers than considering new restrictions on legal gun owners. He said criminals favor the passage of tighter gun laws because it means their potential victims are likely to be unarmed.
“Why all these laws? I mean, you read the laws for firearms in Massachusetts, it’s insanity,” he said. “Who can follow all this?”
Several groups, including Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, voiced support for gun data legislation filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Cynthia Creem. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan also testified in favor.
Decker said the 2014 gun law already requires collection of data on guns connected to crimes, but that data is not being analyzed and acted upon. The bill she filed with Creem (H 2045, S 1388) would require the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to prepare regular reports on the data.
“We’re not asking for anything new to be done,” Decker said. “It’s data that’s there. We need to understand where are these crime guns coming from out-of-state. It’s not fair, particularly to neighborhoods that still see a proliferation of gun violence.”
Gail Erdos, a member of the board for Stop Handgun Violence, said the report would allow legislators and law enforcement to “effectively target the sources of the guns used in crime. So many crimes could be better understood if we were able to do something with this data,” she said.
Creem said that despite its strong gun laws, Massachusetts can always strive to do better. “We can’t be complacent,” the Newton Democrat said.
“We cannot stop here. We owe it to the children.”