Massachusetts has had a ban on military-assault-style weapons since 2004. But that hasn’t been a legal bar preventing Massachusetts gunmakers — and particularly the Springfield-based gun-industry behemoth Smith & Wesson — from producing those weapons here for sales to civilians elsewhere.
Now gun-safety advocates have proposed banning the making of such weapons in Massachusetts (exempting military sales). The Boston Globe editorial board is persuaded that it would be an important statement of principle for policy makers to enact such a ban.
The weapon in question is principally an AR-15-style rifle, a semi-automatic long gun of particular lethality. It often features a folding or collapsing stock, a pistol grip, and a barrel shroud or handguard (think: heat shield). Those features make it easier to conceal, transport, aim, stabilize, handle, and control the weapon when firing. Combined with the large-capacity magazine the rifles are designed to accommodate, those characteristics facilitate the “spray-firing” desired in an effective military weapon — and so lethal in mass shootings.
Those features help explain why AR-15s are involved in so many public massacres. An array of AR-15s were used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which slaughtered 60; an AR-15-like rifle was used in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, which claimed 49 lives; an AR-15 was one of the weapons employed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Conn., which killed 26; an AR-15 was the weapon of choice in the 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, in which 17 were killed; as were several of the weapons in the 2015 mass shooting at a San Bernardino, Calif., holiday party, which left 14 dead; as was one of the guns in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, which claimed 12 lives; and one of the firearms in the mass shooting at the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which cost 11 lives.
Specifically, AR-15s produced by Smith & Wesson were used in the Parkland shootings, the Aurora shootings, and the San Bernardino shootings.
“If these weapons of war can’t be legally sold or owned here, they certainly should not be manufactured here either and used for what have become daily mass shootings elsewhere,” said John Rosenthal, cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence, a leading gun-safety group.
So secretive are gun companies about their practices that it’s difficult to obtain reliable information on where specific weapons are manufactured. Smith & Wesson is one of largest gun manufacturers in the United States. Its Springfield factory is one of its largest facilities. The biggest part of the company’s business is making handguns. But though a late-comer to the assault-rifle business, Smith & Wesson now also produces hundreds of thousands of rifles each year — and the lion’s share of those would qualify as assault weapons under Massachusetts law, according to law-enforcement sources.
Reached by e-mail, an unnamed respondent for the company didn’t directly address a query about how many AR-15s are manufactured at its Springfield plant, instead answering that “[t]his information is available annually on the ATF’s website.” Asked if Smith & Wesson produced all its AR-15s in Massachusetts or made some in other states, the respondent replied: “We produce all finished product in Massachusetts.” (A 2014 article in Ammoland about a tour of the Springfield factory includes a photo of a technician with an AR-15.)
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s gun-manufacturing records aren’t detailed enough to allow the identification of AR-15s among a gun company’s production portfolio, but if that comment is taken to mean that all the rifles made in Springfield are AR-15s, then it has been hundreds of thousands.
ATF records show the firm produced 265,356 rifles in Massachusetts in 2017 and 278,372 in 2018, though that fell to 2,226 in 2019, the last year for which ATF has data. In the last quarter for which the company released information, the manufacturer said that it had sold “1.8 million units” (a total that could include both guns and accessories) in the first three-quarters of its fiscal year and claimed $258 million in net sales in its third fiscal quarter.
The Smith & Wesson responder declined comment on the proposed ban. But a response to questions the investment fund BlackRock put to management of the corporate structure that included the gunmaker several years ago made apparent Smith & Wesson’s stance toward gun-caused carnage.
“As a practical matter, it is no more realistic or feasible for us to monitor whether our legal firearms are used in criminal ways, than it is for a car manufacturer to monitor how often a drunken driver causes a tragic accident with one of their vehicles, or for a mobile phone company to monitor whether its mobile devices are used in terrorist activities,” the statement declared.
Banning manufacture here obviously doesn’t mean Smith & Wesson will no longer make assault weapons, of course. The firearms firm could simply move whatever production occurs in Massachusetts elsewhere. That said, it could also follow the example of West Hartford-based Colt, which announced in 2019 it would cease making AR-15s for civilian sale, and then focus on a line of less lethal and controversial weapons. Several decades ago, Smith & Wesson had plans to be a pioneer in the development of “smart guns” that would only fire for a recognized owner. That technology, which would essentially child-proof a gun, had the potential to prevent scores of gun accidents as well as stolen-gun crimes and gun suicides by family members other than the gun owner. Sadly, in the face of an NRA-stoked backlash, Smith & Wesson abandoned those plans.
Massachusetts would not be the first state to impose such a ban. California has done so, as have New York and New Jersey as part of broader legislation. The New York assault weapons ban, which includes an in-state manufacturing prohibition, has been upheld at the appellate level. The California legislation is currently facing such a challenge.
As with any new approach to gun safety, there are arguments on both sides. To deal with one oft-raised objection, this shouldn’t run afoul of the US Supreme Court’s decided skepticism about state laws that interfere with interstate commerce. Those decisions have generally dealt with restrictions by one state that impedes economic activity in another. Massachusetts policy makers wouldn’t be dictating that gun manufacturers couldn’t make assault weapons in other states, but only that they can’t produce them here.
The struggle against gun violence in America has been and will continue to be a difficult one. Ideally, we will again see the kind of nationwide ban on assault weapons that was enacted under Bill Clinton and that endured for a decade before it was allowed to expire.
But states are a ripe arena for action, and this is an instance where Massachusetts can make an important and principled statement. Having effectively protected our own residents from gun violence, policy makers should not be callous about, or morally oblivious to, a manufacturing practice that can end up inflicting assault weapons carnage elsewhere from weapons that are produced, but not legal, here.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.