fb-pixel Skip to main content

Lawmakers aim to bar Mass. gunmakers from making weapons to sell in other states

But Beacon Hill can’t legally regulate interstate commerce, critics say

Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifles were for sale at a gun show in Loveland, Colo. A version of the military-style gun was used in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Florida, which left 50 dead in 2016.
Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifles were for sale at a gun show in Loveland, Colo. A version of the military-style gun was used in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Florida, which left 50 dead in 2016.NYT

Massachusetts residents can’t legally buy the AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles manufactured by Springfield-based Smith & Wesson. But the Massachusetts-made guns can be sold across state lines.

Home to some of the nation’s strictest gun laws and some of its largest gun manufacturers, Massachusetts has its fair share of firearm contradictions. Democratic state lawmakers are now taking aim at one of them, proposing a bill to ban the manufacture of certain kinds of firearms unless they are intended for sale to the military or law enforcement. That would keep Massachusetts-made assault weapons out of the hands of private citizens.

“The same kinds of choices we make to protect people here in Massachusetts, we’re going to make those choices to protect people across the country,” said Representative Marjorie Decker, one of the bill’s authors and a Cambridge Democrat. “We are really recognizing and honoring the loss of life of people across the country whose loved ones have been murdered at the hands of assault weapons manufactured in this state, knowing that we won’t tolerate that for our own residents in Massachusetts.”

The proposal has generated pushback from industry groups and those who oppose restrictions on gun ownership, battles Democratic lawmakers said they’re prepared to fight. Gun industry allies say firearms manufacturing is an important part of the state’s economy, especially in the Springfield area, where Smith & Wesson remains one of the country’s largest gunmakers. And they say the bill would not withstand a court challenge, because it would illegally obstruct interstate commerce.

Advertisement



The bill’s authors said they felt compelled to take action in response to a recent wave of deadly mass shootings across the country. Assault rifles used at many of them, including in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla., were manufactured by Smith & Wesson in Massachusetts, according to John Rosenthal, cofounder of the group Stop Handgun Violence.

Advertisement



Massachusetts’ assault weapons ban prohibits residents from selling or possessing certain semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, although hundreds of models of rifles, shotguns, and handguns are permissible.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Massachusetts had the country’s lowest rate of gun deaths in 2019. Proponents say that’s a direct result of the state’s tight controls on gun ownership and sales, and evidence that those laws should be expanded to keep certain firearms out of the hands of private individuals in other states.

With Congress historically gridlocked on the issue, Massachusetts Democrats have pinned their hopes on an economic lever: They can’t change other states’ gun laws, they said, but they can limit where Massachusetts-made guns end up.

“Massachusetts has proven that gun laws work,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a serious contradiction when Massachusetts enacts tough gun laws but allows military-style weapons that can’t be sold here to cause mayhem elsewhere. It’s just wrong.”

Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the 2012 shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, where the shooter used a Smith & Wesson assault rifle, appeared at a press conference announcing the bill on Tuesday and described the path six bullets took through the 24-year-old’s body: through one leg and into the other, three shots into her stomach, one bullet that pulverized her shoulder blade, and finally, one shot to her head.

“These weapons are made in your state, but they can’t be sold in your state,” Phillips said. “So in effect, Massachusetts is exporting bloodshed to the rest of the country.”

Advertisement



The bill was filed by Decker, Representative Frank Moran, a Lawrence Democrat, and Senator Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat. Its supporters include Representative Bud Williams, a Democrat from Springfield, where Smith & Wesson is headquartered — leaving the manufacturer in a perilous political position.

Williams said he anticipates a fight with Smith & Wesson, but he’s prepared for it.

“Responsible people have to stand up and do responsible things,” Williams said. “Let’s put the helmet on, let’s get it done.”

Having the support of a representative from the area is “meaningful” for the bill’s political chances, Creem said.

Proponents said they were also trying to recruit support from Representative Carlos González, who also represents Springfield. Reached Tuesday, González said he had not had a chance to review the bill.

Neither House Speaker Ronald Mariano nor Senate President Karen E. Spilka took a position on the bill in response to Globe requests. Mariano said in a statement that there’s more work to be done on gun violence, but suggested it’s largely a federal issue, saying “in order to put an end to mass shootings, all states have to operate under a national standard.”

Smith & Wesson and Kahr Arms, a manufacturer in Worcester, did not respond to requests for comment. But organizations including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group, and the Massachusetts-based Gun Owners’ Action League pledged to strenuously oppose it.

Advertisement



Lawrence Keane, senior vice president for government and public affairs and general counsel for the NSSF, said the bill could face a legal challenge if passed. Massachusetts can’t regulate commerce involving other states, he said.

Keane noted that restrictions on gun ownership and manufacturing have often spurred firearm companies to move to friendlier regulatory environments. According to the NSSF, the firearms industry supported roughly 7,800 jobs and generated $4.6 million in state and federal tax revenue in Massachusetts last year.

“Unfortunately, once again, they’re heading in the completely wrong direction,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of GOAL. Instead of targeting gun manufacturing and sales, he called for a comprehensive study of mental health resources offered to Massachusetts residents, saying that is the way to prevent mass gun violence.

The measure could have economic consequences for gun manufacturers, though lawmakers said they did not know how much money or how many jobs might be at stake. Smith & Wesson recently reported record sales, selling more than $257.6 million worth of guns and accessories in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021.

“It’s always a balance between what you feel is best for public safety — you look at business, you look at the economy,” Creem said. “In the end, you have to come down on the side of what’s good for the public.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the bill would prohibit the manufacturing of certain firearms for sale to individuals.

Advertisement




Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.