Gun deaths: how many more before common sense kicks in?

Driving past Newtown, Connecticut this past weekend was a reminder of how virtually nothing has been accomplished since the slaughter of little children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut a year and a half ago.  The Stop Handgun Violence billboard along the Mass. Pike puts at more than 32,000 the number of gun deaths since Newtown. What will it take to limit the ready availability of handguns, or at least to keep them out of the hands of criminals and the seriously mentally ill?

Take the case of Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old  madman who went on a killing spree a week ago in California. I will probably never forget the primordial wail of anguish of Richard Martinez, whose son Chris was among the victims of the recent mass killing at U.C. Santa Barbara.  The senior Martinez’ rage at the deadly toll exacted by Rodger spilled over in unspeakably painful frustration and despair.  It continues to echo in my mind.  What parent wouldn’t feel the horror? But which parents will act on it?

Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss wrote on Saturday that “Rodger was less sinister than sad.” I couldn’t disagree more. Lonely, bullied, spurned by women, he was pitiable right up until he armed himself with guns and knives and killed people. Then he became a monster. He killed three people by stabbing and three people by shooting. A mentally ill person shouldn’t be able to purchase guns.  The threshold for denial shouldn’t be commitment for mental illness.  Too many dangerously unstable individuals are simply walking around, not hospitalized.  Even Rodger’s parents knew he was one of those potentially dangerous individuals and reported him to the police.

So, thank you, Bob De Leo.  The House Speaker has proposed a series of amendments to Massachusetts’ already comparatively strict gun laws.  For one thing, his bill would require the Commonwealth to report mental health records to a federal data base for use in background checks. That’s a no-brainer.  All private gun sales would have to involve a licensed dealer, to facilitate tracking.  Local police, who have a say in permits for some firearms, would be able to weigh in on permits for rifles and shotguns. There  would be state standards for suitability to deter capricious decisions by local police, and there would be more uniform standards for tracing guns.  School staffs would be better trained in suicide prevention.

The immediate question is: will the bill pass, and, more importantly, will the state fund the implementation so that it’s not just feel good on paper?  The legislature will be deluged by those claiming the Second Amendment guarantees their right to own handguns, in fact, as many as they want.  Well, maybe so, if they belong to a militia, and a well-regulated militia at that.

As NY Times Joe Nocera pointed out recently in reviewing Michael Waldman’s new book The Second Amendment: A Biography,  what the framers of the Constitution really supported was gun ownership as “a collective right for the common defense.”

This “well-regulated militia” standard was accepted Second Amendment American law until a 1977 power change at the NRA effectively twisted the Founding Fathers’ words, craven legislators caved to the insurgents’ agenda, and partisan judges piled on, notably in  the 2008 Heller decision. It’s repugnantly ironic  that two centuries of settled gun control law was overturned by  Justice Antonin Scalia, who wraps himself in pious fealty to  so-called Constitutional originalism, always asking “what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.” I’d like him to respond to Waldman’s book.

I’m sure someone will comment about the fact that Rodger also killed with knives, and will ask whether I want to ban knives.  Right after Newtown, I wrote about a crazy man in China who went on a rampage the day before the Sandy Hook killings, attacking 22 people with knives.  No one died.  Certainly stabbings can be fatal, but gun attacks bring more certain death.

Yes, I know that the Massachusetts law will, of itself, not change a national problem. Much more needs be done. But with the DeLeo legislation, Massachusetts has a chance to make a statement about gun violence and even about responsible gun ownership.  It’s time to make that statement and make it stick.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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One Response to Gun deaths: how many more before common sense kicks in?

  1. On Tuesday, May 27, 2014 House Speaker Robert DeLeo released “An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence” to the general public. Upon reviewing the legislation we were very disappointed. GOAL was hoping that after a year of hearings across the state a bill would be drafted that we could immediately support. Sadly, that is not the case.

    It was our sincere hope that a bill would emerge that would begin to reform the state’s convoluted and ineffective gun laws. Instead what appeared could be described as Chapter 180 Part II. In 1998 the Massachusetts legislature passed sweeping changes to the gun laws known as Chapter 180. These changes resulted in an alarming 80% reduction in the number of licensed gun owners in the state. As for the ability of these new laws to reduce crime, they have been an abject failure! In the fifteen years since the bill was signed into law, gun-related homicides have doubled and gun related assaults have tripled.

    This newly proposed legislation was supposed to be about addressing mental health issues and providing more crime fighting tools. While some of the bill covers those matters to some degree, there are proposals in it that will simply result in the further persecution of lawful gun owners. Further, rather than actually reforming the convoluted laws so that lawful citizens and law enforcement can better understand them, this bill would actually add to the legal chaos.

    There are certain proposals that GOAL can support if the language is drafted correctly like the compliance with the 2007 National Instant Check System Improvement Amendments Act. There are also sections that cover punishing armed carjackings and home invasions that we could support. The bill also addresses the delays in licensing renewals to some degree.

    It is our hope that this legislation can be amended to the point where GOAL and its members can support thoughtful mental health and crime fighting tools. Below is a review of the proposals by subject matter, section and GOAL’s stance:

    SECTIONS 1, 10, 11, 12, 42, 43 & 44 (Compliance with the 2007 National Instance Check System Improvement Amendments Act) – Could Support if Drafted Correctly

    SECTIONS 2, 3 & 45 (Firearm Retailer Employees) – Support

    The language in these sections would allow access to CORI information and mandate that all employees for firearm retailers are subject to such checks.
    SECTION 4 (School Resource Officers and Mental Health of Students) – Support

    This section would pave the way for School Resource Officers across the state. There is the concern that schools may not have the financial means to accomplish the task.
    A secondary concern is to assure that such officers are exempt under MGL 269 § 10j, carrying firearms on school grounds.
    Provides for school plans to deal with acute mental health needs.
    SECTION 5 (Suicide Awareness Training for School Personnel)

    The concept is to make teachers and other school employees aware of the warning signs of potential suicide at risk persons. Will there be appropriate funding for this and are we asking too much of teachers these days? Perhaps an informational campaign for the students would be more effective.
    SECTION 6 &13 (Suicide Prevention in Hunter Education Courses & Data Collection) – Oppose

    While we understand the importance of suicide prevention, it is our belief that adding such curriculum to safe handling courses may be inappropriate. Specifically hunter education courses are nationally accredited and may not be able to be changed to meet the criteria. Primarily certified firearm instructors are not versed in mental health issues.
    There is also language in the section about collecting data on firearm related suicides. If this is to be done, we believe this should be expanded to all types of suicides, especially since the number of suicides by hanging/suffocation are more than guns, drugs and poison combined.
    SECTION 7 (Physicians and Firearms) – Oppose

    GOAL strongly objects to physicians discussing the “role of firearms” with their patients. While we appreciate the effort to recognize suicide risk and mitigate potential means, these subjects should be dealt with concerning all means of suicides. Further, it is likely that this matter would be better suited to licensed mental health professionals.
    SECTION 8 & 9 (Hospitalization and Evaluation) – Need More Clarification

    It is not quite clear what is being accomplished with these sections. If it is for the purpose of making sure that persons needing help are receiving it that would be a good start. We do need to clarify that persons who have been evaluated and released as not needing treatment should not be disqualified.
    SECTIONS 15, 21 & 28 (Posting of and Printing of Suicide Prevention Numbers) – Oppose

    These sections seek to mandate that firearm retailers post information about suicide prevention and that phone numbers for such information be placed on firearm licenses. While we appreciate legitimate methods for reducing suicides, such mandates would only go further to stigmatize lawful gun ownership and are unlikely to have the positive effect sought.
    SECTION 16 & 46 (Firearm Retailer Records) – Oppose

    This section would mandate that firearm retailers who have closed their business must forward their records to EOPSS. It is already mandated at the federal level that all such materials are to be handed over to the BATFE, why does the state need them as well? This would only add more bureaucracy and useless data to a system that is already in a mess.
    SECTION 17 (Technical Correction)

    SECTION 18 (Banning “Private Sales”) – Oppose

    This section would needlessly ban the private sales of guns by licensed citizens. Under current law lawfully licensed citizens are limited to four such sales in a calendar year. The seller has to be legally licensed and thus has gone through a background check. The purchaser has to be legally licensed and thus has gone through a background check. Then a state transfer form (FA-10) must be completed and submitted to the state within seven days giving the state a second chance at reviewing the transfer.
    Another problem exists as there are many high quality handguns that cannot be lawfully transferred by firearm retailers. As the language in this bill would even further complicate that problem it is not be justifiable to ban private transfers on those firearms.
    SECTIONS 19 & 26 (Firearm Identification Cards & Licenses to Carry) – Oppose

    Expands the “suitability” clause currently in the License to Carry laws to the FID Card.
    This changes FID cards from a “shall issue” to a “may issue” making it a discretionary license. It also adds “good reason” language to FID cards, meaning a citizen would have to provide a reason for wanting an FID card.
    Adds the ability for licensing officers to place arbitrary restrictions on FID Card holders.
    In both the FID card and LTC laws it lowers the two year misdemeanor disqualifier to only one year. This could easily result in thousands more citizens losing their civil rights.
    Adds misdemeanor crime of domestic violence
    Removes the right to apply for an FID card after a five year period of a conviction of a nonviolent crime.
    Adds extensive mental health language as for commitments and hospitalization that uses the term “confined”, but offers no definition for what that is.
    Creates additional language for drug and alcohol addiction, still has the “cured” language which has been a problem.
    EOPSS to establish rules/ regulations for suitability with the advice of the Mass Chiefs and GCAB but will NOT be in law. The suitability clause has been widely abused by some local chiefs, but yet they are going to be allowed to determine definitions.
    SECTION 20 & 27 (Receipt for License Applications) – Support*

    This section would mandate that a receipt is given when a license application is received. The receipt would provide evidence that a license would be valid until the system has approved or denied the application. This would relieve at least some of the problems with the system.
    We would like to see the system fixed as a whole to assure that licensed individuals can expect a professional level of service for the high license fees they pay.
    We would also like to make sure that said receipts would make the license valid for purchasing guns and ammunition while they are waiting for the full renewal.
    SECTION 22 & 30 (Gun Registration & Penalties for not Renewing Early) – Oppose

    Would require gun owners to submit an affidavit at time of application on lost or stolen firearms. Since reporting such matters is already law, why are we wasting time with yet another bureaucratic step? This is obviously an attempt at backdoor gun registration which has always led to confiscation.
    The section also allows for penalties if gun owners do not renew their licenses 90 days early! What could be the purpose of this other than pure harassment?
    SECTION 23 (Technical Correction)

    SECTION 24 & 31 (Lowering Fines for Renewals) – Support

    Reduces the fine for an expired license from $500 to $100.
    SECTION 25 (Increased Penalties for Failure to Report Lost or Stolen Guns) – OPPOSE

    The main reason for licensed gun owners being wary of reporting a theft or loss is the abuse of the “suitability” that this bill even seeks to expand. For good reason, gun owners fear that if they make such a report that they will have their license revoked. As evidence there is an ongoing case where it took the thieves two days to break into the safe and the homeowner was still brought up on charges for unsafe storage. If the government wants the assistance of lawful gun owners then we would strongly suggest that it begin to earn our trust.
    SECTION 29 (LTC Renewals) – Support

    This section changes the renewal language for a License to Carry concerning renewals. The law will now allow licenses to remain valid until the renewal process is completed.
    We would want to make sure that there is a means to make sure firearm and ammunition purchases will be legal during this time.
    SECTION 32: (Further Complicating the Approved Firearm Roster) – Oppose

    For almost two decades there has been great confusion over what handguns can be legally sold in the Commonwealth. This has been caused by two different state entities claiming authority over these sales.
    The current laws allow for companies to have their products tested and if passed placed on the Approved Firearms Roster through the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). There are also regulations under the Consumer Protection laws through the Attorney General’s office over the sale and manufacture of handguns.

    These two entities have confused gun owners and retailers as a list is published, but the Attorney General does not recognize it. So rather than clarify the problem, this legislation would make the matter worse by giving the Attorney General the authority to arbitrarily remove firearms from the list.

    SECTION 33: (Increase Penalties for Storage Violations) – Oppose

    Drastically increases penalties for storage violations. The question is why? Is there a particular need for such increases?
    There is also a change in the law regarding severe penalties, up to 15 years in prison, for access to large capacity rifles or shotguns, handguns and machine guns to anybody under the age of 18, regardless if they have a license. What is the purpose for removing the licensed junior shooter exemption? This will greatly complicate providing junior shooters with safety training and the ability to compete and practice their sport.
    SECTION 34 (Drastic Changes to the Certified Instructor Training Program) – Oppose

    It removes the recognition of instructors certified by a nationally recognized organization (NRA).
    Grants the Colonel of the State Police wide “suitability” authority over who can be a certified instructor.
    Hints that there will be one standardized curriculum for all firearm safety courses and it will be created by the state.
    Adds mandatory live fire to all courses that will add expense to non-fire courses. This may also make the Hunter Education courses ineligible since Massachusetts does include live fire.
    Seeks to include suicide prevention and “harm reduction” into the curriculum.
    SECTION 36 (Tracing of Guns used in Crime) – Support*

    This particular piece is actually included in GOAL Civil Rights and Public Safety bill where we propose to create the Criminal Firearms and Trafficking Division.
    One concern we do have is the sharing of private information that could be misused as has been done in the past.
    SECTION 37 (Penalties for Armed Carjacking) – Support

    SECTION 38 & 39 (Penalties for Armed Home Invasion) – Support

    SECTION 40 (Possession of Firearms While Intoxicated) – Support*

    We would like to see some clarification that people on moderate doses of prescribed medication are not caught up in any such penalties.
    SECTION 41 (Increasing Penalties for Carrying a Firearm on School Grounds) – Oppose

    This law needs to be amended to allow lawfully licensed citizens to carry on school grounds. There exists an absolute right to protect life and that right should not stop at the edge of school property.
    SECTION 47 (Special Commission on School Emergency Response) – Support*

    The members of the commission should include individuals who are specially trained for such responses as these specialties have drastically changed in the last few years.
    SECTION 48 (Commission for Mental Health in Schools) – Support*

    Mental health issues have come to the forefront in the past several years. Every tragedy we have witnessed recently has been the result of a very disturbed person that was not helped. This commission should actually be much broader and look at the state of mental health services across the Commonwealth. GOAL has suggested that the legislature look at drafting a mental health omnibus bill or bond bill in the next session.
    SECTION 49 (Commission to Study the Safekeeping of Firearms for Distressed People) – Support

    SECTION 50 (Class B Licenses) – Needs Redrafting

    It appears that this section was intended to do away with the LTC Class B licenses. These licenses have seldom been issued because of the confusion over what one can possess on them. We agree that the Class B should be eliminated, the problem is that the language only states that they shall not be issued. This could be taken a completely different way to a licensing officer. The language needs to be redrafted removing the Class B from section 131 and subsequent laws entirely and then transforming all Class Bs currently issued to Class A licenses.

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