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Panel urges new controls on guns in Mass.

Wider screening, better training in 44-point plan

Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, who each lost a child in the Newtown, Conn., shootings, spoke at a hearing on gun control  at the Massachusetts State House in September of last year.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, who each lost a child in the Newtown, Conn., shootings, spoke at a hearing on gun control at the Massachusetts State House in September of last year.

A panel of specialists appointed after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre recommended Monday that Massachusetts toughen its gun laws by broadening background checks and giving police chiefs the power to prohibit potentially dangerous people from buying rifles and shotguns.

The panel, commissioned by the House speaker, made 44 recommendations while acknowledging that the state already has among the strictest gun laws in the country. Nevertheless, the report includes a wide range of suggestions, from enrolling Massachusetts in a national mental health database for screening potential gun buyers to beefing up gun safety courses.

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Commission members said they wanted to focus on ideas that are backed by academic research and that are politically viable. As such, their report rejected some controversial gun-control measures, including one long sought by Governor Deval Patrick that would limit firearm purchases to one a month.

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the findings would help lawmakers craft a bill that could pass before July, when the House and Senate conclude major business.

“The members, both pro and con, are ready for it,” DeLeo said. “I think this will be the year.”

But it is not clear that the report will help break the opposition that has stymied recent gun-control measures on Beacon Hill.

The Gun Owners Action League, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said the commission all but ignored the group’s voice in assembling the recommendations and said the report is “not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Patrick had a mixed reaction to the findings, calling them a “big step” for lawmakers and saying: “I hope that they will act at least on those recommendations.” But he questioned how anyone could object to limiting gun purchases to one a month.

Commission members acknowledged that both sides would find fault.

“If you are avidly gun control, or you are avidly pro-gun, you are going to be dissatisfied with some of the things in this report,” said Robert A. Cerasoli, a commission member and former state inspector general. “But what we wanted to do was make progress. What we wanted to do is continue to reduce gun violence, knowing full well that Massachusetts does have a very, very strict law.”

The eight-member panel was led by Jack McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminologist. It included the police chief in Natick, a former state mental health commissioner, a Harvard public health researcher, a former gang prosecutor in Suffolk County, a psychiatrist, and the superintendent of schools in Revere.

Commission members said they met 15 times over the last nine months and interviewed gun owners, gun dealers, police officers, mental health specialists, school superintendents, legislators, and parents of mentally ill children.

The report urged Massachusetts to join the National Instant Background Check System, a federal database that would allow police chiefs to screen out potential gun buyers who have been found by a court to be mentally ill. Massachusetts is one of the few states that is not enrolled in that database.

The panel members said they also learned that current law gives too much discretion to police chiefs to deny gun licenses to “unsuitable persons,” so they recommended that the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association help develop a tighter definition for that term.

For the most part, police chiefs invoke the “unsuitable persons’’ language to deny licenses for handguns. The panel recommended that police chiefs be allowed to apply that standard to buyers of rifles and shotguns, who are exempt.

That change would allow police chiefs to prohibit people who have been arrested, but not convicted, of a crime from buying a rifle.

The study also sought to improve gun safety. For example, it recommended that gun training courses include not only classroom time, but also practice firing weapons, and that the state provide a tax credit to encourage gun owners to buy safes to store their weapons.

Other findings centered on longer-term solutions, such as increasing funding for youth jobs and mental health and drug counseling.

Despite high-profile school shootings across the country, the report said Massachusetts schools are generally safe, as are schools nationwide. Still, the report asked state officials to lead an effort to develop more comprehensive school safety plans, in concert with parents and police.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said he objected to the idea of allowing police chiefs to deny “unsuitable persons” from buying a rifle.

“My question is: why?” Wallace said. “Document to us where there has been a problem. And so far, no documentation has been available.”

He also said he disagreed with the panel’s request that the Chiefs of Police Association work on the definition of “unsuitable person.” He said too many chiefs have abused that term to deny handgun licenses to lawful buyers.

Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a leading voice for gun owners in the Massachusetts House, said he was troubled that the report ignored what he called the failure of the state’s main gun control law, passed in 1998, to stem gun violence. “This omission begs the question of the necessity for the restrictive laws passed more than 15 years ago,” said Peterson, a Grafton Republican.

Gun control groups generally welcomed the report, while complaining that it did not include several sweeping measures they have long sought.

John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said his organization would continue to push to limit gun purchases to one a month. He said he will also lobby to add copycat versions of name-brand weapons like the one used in Newtown to the list of banned weapons in Massachusetts and to prohibit gun owners from carrying more than one high-capacity magazine.

Still, he called the panel’s recommendations “both realistic and practical” and said that if enacted they would “save lives and ensure that Massachusetts maintains its status as a national leader in gun violence prevention.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

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