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Mass. House lawmakers approve gun bill aimed at toughening state laws

After making last-minute changes to mollify angry gun owners, the Massachusetts House tonight approved wide-ranging legislation aimed at tightening state gun laws, already considered among the strictest in the nation.

Remarkably, the bill drew praise from gun-control advocates as well as from the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, which remained officially neutral, but called the legislation “a great victory for the Second Amendment.”

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Under the main provisions of the bill, the state would join a national database for criminal and mental-health background checks, require schools to develop plans to address students’ mental health needs, and give police discretion to deny a permit for a rifle or shotgun if an applicant is deemed unsuitable.

The legislation seeks to further tighten Massachusetts’ sweeping 1998 gun law, which has been called among the toughest in the nation. That law banned semiautomatic assault weapons, imposed strict licensing rules, and banned anyone convicted of a violent crime or drug trafficking from carrying or owning a gun.

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo pushed the bill on a day when he was also vigorously denying allegations by federal prosecutors that he was involved in a scheme to trade legislative favors for jobs in the state Probation Department.

The speaker said he was proud that the legislation had sparked praise from gun-rights groups and from gun-control advocates, and he contrasted that highly unusual scenario with the divisiveness that has stymied gun-control legislation in Congress. The House passed the bill on a 112-38 vote.

“It makes our already strong gun laws even stronger here in Massachusetts,” DeLeo said. “But I think it also sends a message throughout every state and most importantly to the folks in Washington,” that gun-control measures can earn bipartisan support.

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The legislation was motivated by the Newtown, Conn. school massacre in December 2012 and was designed in part by a panel of outside legal specialists who met with gun owners, gun dealers, police officers, mental health specialists, school superintendents, legislators, and parents of mentally ill children.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where lawmakers will have to scramble to pass the bill before formal legislative sessions end July 31. A spokeswoman for Senate President Therese Murray said Wednesday that she looks forward to reviewing the bill “with the goal of taking up similar legislation before the end of the session.”

Governor Deval Patrick has in the past spoken favorably of the bill while lamenting that it does not include a provision he supports that would limit gun purchases to one a month. Asked about the legislation on Wednesday, he declined comment, saying he needed to review the details.

The legislation initially provoked strong protests from gun rights advocates, who argued their concerns had been ignored and who flooded House offices with calls arguing that the proposal would further burden lawful gun owners.

Even in liberal Massachusetts, lawmakers said some of the changes the gun owners sought were reasonable and minor, prompting them to make several 11th-hour revisions. Gun-control advocates said the changes did not harm the bill.

One change would require police chiefs who deny a permit to justify their decision in writing. That addition came in response to gun-rights advocates who complained that chiefs had denied permits for arbitrary reasons, or personal grudges.

Lawmakers removed a requirement that gun-training courses include not only classroom time, but also practice firing weapons, after some gun owners argued that would be a burden. And they dropped a provision that would have banned gun sales to people convicted of misdemeanors punishable by one year in prison. Critics said that could have denied guns to people convicted of non-violent offenses, such as swimming in a public water supply.

Lawmakers also tweaked a requirement that all private firearms sales be conducted in the presence of a licensed dealer, instead allowing those transactions to be conducted online, through a state website. Yet another change would require the state to collect and analyze data on all suicides in Massachusetts, not just those caused by firearms, as the bill initially proposed.

The Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, the state NRA affiliate, said the voices of its 17,000 members had improved the bill.

“I’m not jumping up and down and saying, ‘Yahoo,’ but we’re OK with it,” said Jim Wallace, the league’s executive director. “We’re pleased with the last-minute changes.”

Representative George N. Peterson, a Grafton Republican and leading gun-rights supporter in the House, was also encouraged. “We’ve got a pretty good balance,” said Peterson, who helped negotiate the changes with DeLeo.

At the same time, John Rosenthal, founder and president of Stop Handgun Violence, said he strongly supported the measure.

“The changes are reasonable, and the final bill will make it harder for criminals to get guns and save lives and continue to make urban industrial Massachusetts a national leader with effective gun violence prevention laws,” he said.

The Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Handgun Violence said it would seek to toughen the legislation in the Senate, by pushing for the one-gun-a-month limit and other changes. Still, the group applauded the measure saying it “will close dangerous loopholes in our existing gun laws and make Massachusetts a safer place.”

“Today’s vote sends a strong message that Massachusetts is committed to addressing gun violence and it continues our national leadership on this crucial issue,” the group said in a statement.

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

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