Massachusetts can be justly proud of its strong gun laws, but that attitude shouldn’t lead to self-congratulation or, worse, complacency. As many states consider tighter gun-control regulations after the Newtown, Conn., massacre last month, Massachusetts has work to do, too. Lawmakers should start by fixing two glaring weaknesses in the Commonwealth’s gun policies: Massachusetts withholds too much information from the public about gun ownership in the state, and lags behind other states in cooperating with the national registry designed to prevent gun sales to dangerous individuals.
Improving the state’s cooperation with the registry, an FBI database used to conduct background checks on potential gun buyers, is the most obvious weakness lawmakers must fix. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts does not regularly forward mental-health records to the registry. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, which might have been prevented if Virginia had sent the mental-health records of shooter Seung-Hui Cho to the database, many states stepped up efforts to share such files. Governor Patrick has proposed forwarding the records of those confined in a state facility for mental issues. That’s a step in the right direction. Still, his plan leaves a large loophole by not covering records for mentally ill patients under private treatment, or who have not yet been confined.
In the past, some of the resistance to sharing information with the federal registry has stemmed from understandable concerns about patient privacy. Sharing mental-health information is an especially sensitive subject; advocates chafe at any policies that might increase the stigma associated with mental illness by implying that all mentally ill people have violent tendencies. Obviously, the Legislature should proceed carefully in adjusting state privacy laws. But the database itself is confidential, and not all mental-health records would be added to it. Only when an individual has been judged to pose a threat to themselves or others should their name be forwarded to the federal registry. The fact this doesn’t happen already creates an unacceptable risk.
In Massachusetts, in addition to clearing a federal background check to buy a gun, owners also must have a license issued by local police. Those licenses should be public information, as a similar type of permit required for pistols in New York already is. In New York, that data allowed a newspaper in White Plains to publish its much-discussed map of local pistol-permit holders. Making the information public gives residents a clearer idea about the extent of gun ownership in their community, and alerts them to potential safety risks — for instance, if a gun permit were granted to someone with a history of domestic violence. In Massachusetts, because decisions about who receives a license are made on the local level, publicizing them would also serve as a check on favoritism or other improper actions by police. Gun advocates worry that opening the names of license-holders to scrutiny would provide thieves with a shopping list, or stigmatize gun owners, but those concerns need to take a back seat to public safety and accountability.
As the legislative session began on Beacon Hill, the leaders of both chambers were sounding the right notes. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he wanted to study the “dangerous intersection” of guns and mental illness. Senate President Therese Murray says she will pursue gun-control measures “without demonizing the mentally ill.” They are right to approach the issue carefully, but must make sure that a well-meaning fear of stigma doesn’t become an excuse for inaction. Even in Massachusetts there is room for improvement.