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editorial

Linsky starts a conversation on guns and public health

Even before the Newtown tragedy, Massachusetts had some of the most stringent gun laws in America. Now, the national mood has embolded lawmakers to seek more. Any gun control bill must be practical, and safeguard the rights within the Second Amendment. A new bill from state Representative David Linsky, a Democrat from Natick, is a good way to launch a serious debate, because it takes many cues from the public health field. Rather than simply attempt to ban certain weapons, it tries to influence the behavior of gun owners.

For instance, Linsky’s bill would require gun owners to purchase liability insurance, with rates that could vary depending on the type of weapon and storage situation. Gun owners fear that the state could use such a mandate as a stealth way to outlaw guns, by making insurance too costly to obtain. Indeed, the premiums should be based only on a rational accounting of the risks presented by gun ownership, the way that having a pool raises the cost of homeowner’s insurance.

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Another provision in the Linsky bill would require owners of large-capacity rifles to store their guns at gun clubs, rather than in their homes. Gun owners object that this would limit their right to self-defense, and point out Massachusetts already has strict gun storage laws. They raise valid questions about the security and liability issues that would come with storing so many dangerous weapons in one place. But it makes sense to distinguish between weapons used for sport and those used for self-defense, and to look for ways to make storage more foolproof.

Linsky’s bill would also levy a 25 percent sales tax on guns and ammunition, earmarked to mental-health services. Gun owners complain they shouldn’t bear the burden for an underfunded mental-health system. And a tax that’s too high can have unintended consequences. However, a smaller tax, still earmarked for health, could be useful — especially because gun owners’ groups claim to be equally concerned about mental health issues.

Finally, in an effort to keep dangerously ill people from obtaining guns, Linsky’s bill would require applicants for licenses to waive their prerogatives under a federal medical-privacy law and disclose their mental-health providers. Gun owners complain that this would give the government broad discretion to limit licenses based on any health problem. And there should be a way to separate mental-health records from physical-health records. But closer scrutiny of those who seek access to guns is a principle that should appeal to all.

Despite the pitched rhetoric on both sides of the gun control debate, there may be opportunities for common ground. The Gun Owners Action League has introduced its own bill to strengthen criminal penalites against those who use guns illegally — something gun control advocates would likely support. Linsky’s bill could use some tweaking in the legislative process, but as a foundation for discussing gun control from a practical public health standpoint, the bill provides a promising start.

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