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Massachusetts needs to apply the right-to-know concept to firearms produced in state

Current federal reporting standards are too vague to be useful.

A Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport rifle chambered in 5.56 mm for sale at Duke's Sport Shop in New Castle, Pa. in 2018. Smith & Wesson is headquartered in Springfield.Keith Srakocic

The American firearms industry was born in Massachusetts. As recently as 2018 the Commonwealth ranked as the largest producer of guns in America, according to Bloomberg News, accounting for about 1 out of every 4 of guns made each year — including military-assault-style rifles that have been used in many mass shootings. From outside Massachusetts, it can look like a “head-spinning contradiction,” as Bloomberg put it, that a state that imposes so many restrictions on firearms inside its own borders is so comfortable exporting those same deadly weapons to the rest of the world.

With yet another mass shooting in the news — this time in San Jose, Calif. — it’s past time for Massachusetts to resolve that contradiction. This month the Globe editorial board called for banning the manufacture in Massachusetts of weapons for sale to civilians that would not be legal to sell to civilians here. But that’s not enough: The state also needs to insist on greater transparency from manufacturers on exactly what weapons are being produced here.


The gun industry in Massachusetts is a source of jobs, with companies that make guns that are used for recreational purposes and by officers of the law. But it also manufactures assault-style weapons that are sold to civilians out of state, such as the AR-15. Residents of Massachusetts should have a right to know which and how many potentially dangerous products are being manufactured here. That’s particularly true when the firearm in question is one that cannot be sold here. And yet that information is nigh unto impossible to obtain.

Even among gun-safety experts who study and monitor the industry, there is widespread uncertainty. The firearms companies themselves are cryptic on the subject. Although there are some federal reporting requirements, they impart only a vague idea. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives releases a list — its “Annual Firearms Manufacturers and Export Report” — of the number of firearms each manufacturer reports having made, broken down by city and state.


That report, however, has an intentional one-year delay, which means the information isn’t up to date. Further, for the most part, the disclosures are only required in broad categories: pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, and miscellaneous firearms. Only handguns are subcategorized by caliber (that is, the diameter of the barrel bore, which determines both the size of the cartridge the gun takes and that of the bullet it can fire).

When it comes to long guns, a category as general as “rifles” could mean a single-shot .22, a target rifle and beginner’s gun that presents minimal danger or likelihood of use in a mass shooting, or it could mean an AR-15, a firearm that accommodates a high-capacity magazine and has a pistol grip, features that make it easy to inflict maximum carnage without even aiming the gun in traditional snug-to-the-shoulder fashion, or with any particular care to husbanding a limited supply of bullets before having to reload.

State regulators could fill the data gap by requiring manufacturers of firearms to disclose what firearms they do make in the state. That should be done in several ways. First is by listing the name, model number, and other descriptions the company uses to market the gun. Requiring information about important characteristics like standard magazine capacity and whether a rifle has a pistol grip would also be instructive. Such a law should also, of course, mandate that gunmakers disclose any in-state, nonmilitary-contract production of firearms that can’t legally be sold here, either because of the state’s assault-weapons ban or its product-safety regulations.


Although no state currently appears to have such a statute, there is precedent for this kind of legislation. In 1983, then-governor Michael Dukakis shepherded through the Legislature the Right to Know Law, which required employers to label some 2,500 substances deemed to carry a health or safety risk and to disclose any use of those substances to employees and community residents. (As the 1980s progressed, federal OSHA standards superseded some aspects of the state law as it pertained to manufacturing.)

During the debate over the right-to-know legislation, companies and business associations raised concerns about the possible loss of trade secrets. A right-to-know law covering hazardous or potentially dangerous products wouldn’t carry that worry. Every gun-literate person understands, say, that Smith & Wesson, headquartered in Springfield, makes AR-15s. We simply don’t know, definitively, where they are produced and in what number.

Such a statue would probably be best constructed to give people a way to obtain information about a wider range of dangerous or potentially dangerous products, says Dukakis. When it comes to such products, “Why not give the public the right to know?” he asks.


Why not indeed. As with all pioneering legislation, such a law would probably face a legal challenge. This is an area where Supreme Court case law doesn’t provide much useful guidance. In some cases, the court has ruled that forcing a company to make certain kinds of disclosures violates its First Amendment free-speech rights. But the court has also found that the government has more latitude when the information whose disclosure it required was “factual and uncontroversial.” Although certain guns could certainly be considered controversial, the mere factual disclosure of which are manufactured or assembled in-state shouldn’t be considered controversial in and of itself. The goal is transparency about the worst products, not to condemn the industry in its entirety.

At any rate, the risk of running afoul of a conservative high court must be balanced against the value to the public of having concrete factual information about the in-state production of dangerous products. And in this case, the value of that information to informed debate argues strongly for expanding the public’s right to know.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.