After 26 students and teachers were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Massachusetts expanded its already far-reaching gun safety law. Following a mass shooting in Las Vegas — the deadliest in US history — it was the first state to ban bump stocks. And when a teenager killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school, lawmakers here embraced their own “red flag” statute.
Tragedy has regularly proved to be an accelerant for change in Massachusetts, pushing state policymakers to tighten their already strict gun laws at a time when major federal changes have regularly stalled and Republican legislators in other states loosened theirs.
Now, in the wake of horrific gun violence in Buffalo, Uvalde, Texas, and elsewhere, activists and state officials are pointing to Massachusetts as a model, arguing that its rules weaving together background check mandates, far-reaching prohibitions, and local licensing standards should be a guide — if not for Congress, then other states.
“Massachusetts gun laws have been proven to work,” Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who has backed gun safety measures, said Monday, adding that the firearm death rate in this state “justifies thinking about what has been done here in the larger context of the nation.”
“I’ve talked to governors in other states and basically have said to them that they really ought to take a look at Massachusetts laws and make some decisions of their own,” Baker said. “I think it’s undeniable that the laws we have here have worked pretty well.”
Only Hawaii had a lower firearm mortality rate than Massachusetts in 2020; the year before — and in 2016 and 2015, as well — no state did, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And while gun violence has permeated other urban centers, Boston actually saw a drop in homicides and shootings in 2021 and has experienced even fewer so far this year, according to police data.
David Hogg, an activist and survivor of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., wrote Sunday on Twitter that if every state had the same gun laws as Massachusetts, “we could cut gun deaths in half. Within five years.”
If every state had the same gun laws in Massachusetts we could cut gun deaths in half. Within five years.— David Hogg ☮️ (@davidhogg111) June 5, 2022
Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday were preparing an open letter to state legislatures across the country, inviting lawmakers in other states to consider looking at Massachusetts’ laws as a model.
The draft letter — which was being circulated by state Representative Marjorie C. Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, and was obtained by the Globe — said the state “broke the mold by refusing to kowtow to national pundits on either side of the aisle.” It also offered the Massachusetts House as a resource for those considering changes to their statutes.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano was among those who signed it.
To be sure, no law is guaranteed to stop a mass shooting. And lawmakers and advocates both emphasized Monday that Massachusetts is not immune to gun violence. In 2019, there were 86 murders committed with firearms in the state, according to Department of Justice data.
“It’s not that we’re without gun violence . . . but the message is: You still have the power as a state legislature to save lives,” Decker said. “So take a look at what we’ve done and figure it out. You don’t have to wait for Congress.”
Massachusetts passed an assault weapons ban in 1998 and made it permanent in 2004, when the federal ban expired. It also limits ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and requires that any first-time applicant for a six-year firearm license undergo a gun safety course.
All license applicants are also subject to background checks, either for a Firearm Identification Card — which allows people to own and use some rifles or shotguns — or a license to carry, the state’s most popular gun license.
Known as a Class A license, it allows people to own and use handguns and certain other firearms, but also comes with an additional layer of scrutiny. Local police chiefs, who serve as the state’s licensing authority, can deny an applicant they deem to be unsuitable, allowing them the discretion to factor in considerations beyond someone’s criminal record.
That could include whether police have been called to their home, for example, or if they had been the subject of domestic violence incidents that didn’t result in arrests or charges.
As of April 1, there were nearly 529,000 active firearm licenses in Massachusetts, roughly 497,230 of which were Class A licenses.
Acting after the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the Legislature tightened its laws further. That 2014 law now allows police chiefs who want to deny, suspend, or revoke a shotgun or rifle license to file a petition in court.
It also mandated the state join a national database for criminal and mental health background checks and required that Massachusetts create an online portal for conducting the required background checks for private gun transfers.
“We are not starting from ground zero when it comes to gun safety legislation. This has been a fabric of our existence in the commonwealth for several years,” said Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
State statute, however, has also become increasingly complex and, to critics, famously difficult to navigate. Jim Wallace, the executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, said the group offers a course on the state’s gun laws that doesn’t even touch on the “criminal aspect” of the statute, he said, but still runs 3 1/2 hours.
“They’re virtually impossible to follow,” Wallace said of the state rules. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and even we have debates in the office on a fairly regular basis on what a particular law says, what it means. They are just so convoluted.”
The state’s “red flag” law, which gives judges the power to confiscate weapons from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others, has been rarely used. There have been just 48 petitions filed since its 2018 passage, including two so far this year, according to state data, surprising even some of its supporters.
“But I’ve also heard that a lot of people, where they have used it, it has been an effective tool,” said former House speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a gun safety advocate who helped usher the 2014 package and other laws to the governor’s desk.
“I think people in other states view this as a much different issue than we do,” he said of gun legislation. “I’m just tired of the same old [lack of action elsewhere] that we go through every time this happens.”
Others see room for even Massachusetts law to grow. Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, said the state law setting age restrictions on who can qualify for a license is “foggy.”
State laws generally bar anyone under 18 from buying a firearm or ammunition, and no one under 21 can purchase a handgun, but someone 14 years or older can apply for a FID with the permission of a parent or guardian, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Decker and others have also filed legislation that would, among other provisions, seek to regulate so-called “ghost guns,” or firearms that don’t have a serial number and are typically sold in pieces or in kits. Another bill would ban the manufacturing of assault weapons in Massachusetts, except for law enforcement and military purposes. Smith & Wesson, which is based in Springfield, said last year that it will move its headquarters to Tennessee, citing the legislation.
What could emerge before the formal legislative session ends next month is unclear, though legislators believe there is an appetite.
Said Representative James J. O’Day, a West Boylston Democrat and member of Mariano’s leadership team: “I’m pretty confident that this session isn’t going to end without us making some other adjustments, some way, some how to try to even make our laws even more protective.”