The recent Supreme Court decision easing restrictions on gun ownership is worrisome in its own right. But there’s reason to believe the conservative majority will go even further. And that could spell trouble for states like Massachusetts with strict gun laws in place that have proven to be effective.
But there is a way for the Commonwealth to sustain its admirable, decades-long effort to limit gun violence in a nation awash in it.
First, lawmakers need to mount a pre-emptive defense, shielding the state’s gun laws against legal challenge. And then they should go on the offensive, expanding Massachusetts’ gun control regime in smart, targeted ways.
The court’s decision focused on a New York law requiring citizens to demonstrate a “special need” to carry a firearm outside the home.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, found that it was too intrusive: “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
The decision made specific reference to similar statutes in Washington, D.C. and five states, including Massachusetts.
And Attorney General Maura Healey and the Baker Administration have advised police chiefs, who oversee gun licensing, that they can no longer enforce a provision of state law that requires citizens to provide a “good reason” for having a firearm.
Chiefs can continue to block people who have committed felonies and certain other transgressions from obtaining gun licenses, though. And they can keep making use of a “suitability” provision that allows them to deny a license if they have “reliable and credible information” that the applicant is a public safety risk, the guidance said.
That provision allows a police department that has made repeated visits to a home for domestic disturbances or suicide threats, but has never made an arrest, to keep guns out of the hands of people who may be dangerous to themselves or others.
There is concern among advocates and lawmakers, though, that the suitability standard’s vagueness makes it ripe for litigation.
Running through the Supreme Court’s decision is a disdain for so-called “may issue” laws that give local officials broad discretion over granting licenses. A concurrence by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, voices explicit support, by contrast, for “shall issue” laws with objective criteria.
The first task for Massachusetts lawmakers, then, is to create clear, statewide standards, so police chiefs are checking boxes rather than making case-by-case judgment calls.
Legislators could pass a law, for instance, that requires local authorities to deny a permit if there is evidence of domestic abuse within, say, the last five years — even without a conviction.
Developing a comprehensive, workable set of rules along these lines will take time. To do it right, lawmakers will have to consult extensively with local law enforcement officials, tapping their long experience with licensing and their insights on what kinds of behavior might merit denial of a permit. They should also consult with gun rights advocates about any ways local police have abused their authority. That will allow them to craft a fair and nuanced regime.
They can’t do that, as some might hope, before Beacon Hill’s legislative session comes to a close at the end of the month. Lawmakers are focusing instead, in the coming days, on adopting some mostly technical changes that will put Massachusetts law in compliance with the recent court decision. But leadership is pledging to consider a broader overhaul in the coming months.
That broader overhaul should aim to do more than merely codify local law enforcement’s existing practice. It should explore new ideas, too.
Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University and a longtime gun violence researcher, says the Legislature could, for instance, require local police to check in with family about an applicant’s mental health before issuing a license.
The idea is to build into the front end a practice that now plays out on the back end; if someone already has a gun, the state’s “red flag” law allows family to petition a court for removal of the weapon if they fear their loved one is a threat to themselves or others.
The trick would be ensuring a focus on that sort of acute threat; research shows that, while certain kinds of mental illness are associated with elevated risk of suicide and homicide, violence among people with those diagnoses is still rare.
Changes to the licensing process would be a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision. But it would be a mistake for the Legislature to stop there.
Maintaining the state’s leadership role in the fight against gun violence requires other changes.
Advocates have been pressing for legislation that would require a robust analysis of the origin of weapons used in crimes to shape policymaking. Another measure would regulate so-called “ghost guns,” untraceable weapons that are ordered in pieces and assembled at home.
In the wake of a devastating series of mass shootings by young men, the state may also want to reconsider laws that allow those under 18 to possess weapons under certain circumstances. The state could beef up training requirements for gun ownership. And lawmakers should bar guns in sensitive places like churches, government buildings, and even public parks.
The Supreme Court’s decision was a blow to public safety. But it can also be a catalyst for change.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.