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EDITORIAL

As law-skirting practices evolve, the state’s gun laws must as well

The House is ready to lead on that challenge.

The Littleton Mill Gun ShopLane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s not what you’d expect to happen here in Massachusetts, a strict gun-law state: a former mill in the Middlesex County town of Littleton has become a hive of gunmaker and gun-merchant activity.

As the Globe’s Sarah L. Ryley and Andrew Brinker report, the facility now houses more federally licensed gun manufacturers and sellers than any other site in the country — and the gun merchants seem to take considerable pleasure in finding ways to skirt the state’s gun laws.

One way they do so is by selling partially assembled guns or gun parts that, when put together, result in a so-called assault weapon, which are illegal in Massachusetts.

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The enforcement problem there is that the state law banning those weapons excludes any “weapon that is not capable of firing a projectile” — and a partially assembled weapon doesn’t meet that threshold. Indeed, experts say that if law enforcement officers executed a search warrant and found that someone had one fully assembled assault weapon but all the components for another 25 or 50, he or she could currently only be charged for the single assembled firearm.

Whether state law is actually being broken remains a question. For its part, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office declined any comment on the Littleton facility.

The concentration of gun sellers in the warehouse is not in and of itself a problem. Indeed, it could even be said to mark a success of sorts for the state statute, which requires any seller who peddles more than four firearms a year to register as a federally licensed dealer (and thus perform background checks on buyers) and to have an actual brick-and-mortar address.

But if fully assembled assault weapons are outlawed in Massachusetts, it makes no sense that buyers can purchase some partly assembled pieces from one dealer and then go to another to get the additional components needed to finish it at home.

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“Attorney General Healey has done more than any AG in America on gun safety issues,” says John Rosenthal, co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence. “It’s just that there are some big gaps in our law.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a statement to the editorial board that several of the practices employed at the Mill’s gun shops were “extremely concerning” and reflected matters the House is already examining as it develops a new “omnibus” gun-safety bill planned for the next legislative session.

“Our proposal will consider everything from updating our firearm licensing and training framework, to clamping down on evolving technology designed to circumvent our safety laws, to refining tools that help identify individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others, among others,” he said.

Senate President Karen Spilka’s office issued a statement in which Spilka said she would “work with my colleagues to identify any gaps in our laws and to ensure that the laws we do have on the books remain fully effective in keeping residents safe.”

So what needs to be done?

For starters, the Legislature should write into law various aspects of Healey’s enforcement policy. Weapons that are essentially just copies of banned assault weapons but under a different name or by a different manufacturer should obviously also be illegal under state law. Second, gun sellers can’t simply remove one or more features of a weapon that otherwise qualifies as an assault weapon and by doing so legally exempt it from that category.

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Beyond that, the Legislature needs to make it clear that selling partially assembled guns and leaving customers to complete the assembly themselves is not a legally acceptable work-around to the assault weapons ban. If the assembled gun is illegal to buy or sell, then its crucial components should be as well.

Next, the state should incorporate the federal definition of a silencer into its own silencer ban. Experts say the federal language is broader and more comprehensive, and thus a better legal tool against silencer kits or even homemade silencers.

Additionally, since every gun sold in Massachusetts, whether by a licensed dealer or a private seller, must have a recorded serial number, the law needs to be explicit that it is illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess a gun without a serial number or other identifying marks, also called a ghost gun, whether purchased partly assembled, in kit form, or made completely by oneself using a 3-D printer.

It’s encouraging to hear that the House is already working on this matter. The Senate should join energetically in that effort.


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