Bob DeLeo never set out to become a gun control advocate. Like many people, the House speaker long believed Massachusetts had perfectly fine laws to prevent gun violence.
He began to question that belief a few years ago, a process that accelerated after the shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that took 26 victims, 20 of them children, in December 2012.
He started to notice that the high-profile shootings were getting more frequent. They were also beginning to strike closer to home. You could say he started hearing the footsteps.
“Once or twice a year, you would see these mass shootings, and now they seem to happen once a month,” DeLeo said Tuesday. “And Newtown hit close to home. I started noticing how many shootings there were in Boston. It’s not the same city it was when I was growing up. It’s crazy.”
Of course, DeLeo wasn’t alone in being shaken by Sandy Hook. Janet Goldenberg attended a meeting at her temple, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, where women had congregated to discuss the Newtown killings. But they soon found themselves reflecting on violence in Boston, too.
“The fact that this is something that is happening every day in our inner cities, too, was something that we talked about,” she said. Goldenberg is now a member of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of 35 antiviolence organizations.
“It’s been an unprecedented coming together of urban and suburban, and all ages and races, to say we need a sensible, common-sense approach to this problem,” Goldenberg said. “We have an obligation to protect our children, and I wanted to do what I can.”
Tuesday, DeLeo proposed sweeping changes to the way Massachusetts licenses and regulates firearms and their users. It is the most comprehensive gun control legislation offered in many years.
And when DeLeo says he hopes it will pass by the end of formal sessions in July, he’s not speaking idly. When you’re the most powerful lawmaker at the State House, your bills don’t get stuck in committee or heavily amended. Some version close to what he has proposed will almost certainly pass.
After the Newtown shootings, DeLeo recalled, there was momentum for a quick fix to the state’s gun laws. Meanwhile, others were insisting that only federal legislation would be effective.
He brushed both approaches aside, instead appointing a committee chaired by Northeastern University professor Jack McDevitt to study the issue. Blue-ribbon committees are often where good ideas go to die, but this was an exception.
“Quite frankly, they taught me a lot,” DeLeo said. He learned, for example, about lax laws governing private gun sales. He also learned that the discretion local police departments have in issuing permits to carry firearms didn’t apply to other weapons. Those are two areas that would be addressed in the new legislation.
As the committee did its work, it drew ideas from many grass-roots groups working on this issue. Some became active after Newtown, while others have been working on gun issues for years. Many of them have religious affiliations. As Goldenberg noted, the activism, once mostly city-based, has now crossed into the suburbs. A lot of the activists are mothers, a reflection, I think, of the fact that gun violence takes so many young lives.
Critics of the legislation will argue that no legislation could have prevented Newtown, and they have a valid point. Every mass shooting has its own circumstances. But many of the shootings that go almost unnoticed on a daily or weekly basis are preventable. If this bill does that, it can save lives.
DeLeo noted the proposed gun control legislation could be the last really major bill to reach Governor Deval Patrick’s desk, and a fitting piece of his legacy. “I think it would be a great send-off,” DeLeo said. He’s right.