Massachusetts legislators say they will file at least two dozen gun safety bills by next week amid rising concern about gun violence and loopholes in existing state laws, setting the stage for what could be the biggest push for sweeping gun reform that the state has seen in decades.
But they also face unusually formidable opposition, with the growing ranks of gun owners in the state and a looming threat that the starkly conservative US Supreme Court could strike down a raft of provisions that are considered cornerstones of the state’s existing gun safety laws.
Many of the Massachusetts bills are similar to ones that have failed to pass multiple sessions in a row, such as tightening the state’s assault weapons ban or forbidding the sale of guns without serial numbers, so-called ghost guns. But supporters of the measures said they have higher hopes this year, given strong support from the speaker of the House and with Democrats firmly in control of both the Legislature and the governor’s office — although former governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, was a vocal supporter of the state’s strict gun laws.
“Massachusetts really hasn’t passed any major gun legislation over the course of the past few years,” said Sean Holihan, state legislative director for the gun control advocacy group Giffords Law Center. “They like to talk about how they’re one of the best states in the country for gun violence prevention legislation. Well, they’ve been left behind by New York and other states. So I think there’s also that feeling of pressure that they haven’t acted.”
Holihan said pols were also embarrassed by the Globe’s reporting last fall that a cluster of gun vendors at a mill in the small town of Littleton were brazenly exploiting loopholes in the state’s gun laws by selling banned and restricted guns as parts, along with weapons such as AR-15s that had cosmetic modifications to skirt the state’s assault weapons ban.
“They want to have a robust response, and I think they will do that this year,” Holihan said.
But passing more gun restrictions is by no means a slam dunk. Gun owners in Massachusetts are a fast-growing constituency, more than doubling between 2010 and 2021, from 235,000 to 517,000. And any existing or new laws may have to survive a historically conservative Supreme Court that experts on all sides say could radically expand gun rights.
In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last June that effectively invalidated Massachusetts’ law restricting who could carry concealed weapons, state House Speaker Ronald Mariano pledged to pass a comprehensive gun safety package this legislative session and tapped Representative Michael Day of Stoneham to lead the effort. “A highly politicized Supreme Court has threatened the security of Massachusetts residents,” Mariano said in a statement last July.
Day said the House will launch a statewide listening tour on gun issues in February. The first of at least 10 stops will be on Cape Cod and focus on suicide by gun. Future topics will include gun violence against women and in communities of color, the concerns of hunters and responsible gun owners, and the sale of modified versions of banned or prohibited guns.
“We’ll be hitting everywhere from Fall River to the Berkshires, to Lowell and in Boston and everywhere in between,” Day said. “Everything is on the table.”
Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat, said he plans to introduce 13 bills, including several on Thursday, the first of at least 23 that legislators have so far told the Globe would be filed by the Jan. 20 deadline. Linsky said he expects multiple House and Senate members to co-sponsor his bills.
Day said the House’s final gun package could include some of the proposals introduced by members, and others that arise from the listening tour, and could be either one sweeping omnibus bill or individual bills.
“The impetus obviously on this has been the rise in mass shootings, the assault — I think it’s fairly called — on our laws from a rogue Supreme Court,” he said. “A much broader mandate, I think [will be] looking at how our gun safety laws are working and how they’re not working.”
But some gun safety supporters have said Governor Maura Healey and Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland seem less enthusiastic about passing sweeping gun reforms and could stymie more ambitious House efforts.
Some pointed out that Healey didn’t mention guns in her inaugural speech last week, nor did Spilka in her speech upon being elected Senate president this year.
But Spilka pushed back, saying, “We moved quickly after the Supreme Court recently gutted some of the gun laws that we have and we will continue to move quickly and keep that leadership role.” She added that she created a working group after the court’s decision to examine constitutional issues that may arise with the state’s gun laws under the court’s current conservative makeup.
Likewise, Healey has recently touted her support for banning guns made by 3D printers as well as ghost guns. “We need to continue to make sure that we defend our strong gun laws here in Massachusetts,” she told reporters at an event on Tuesday.
Massachusetts legislators made quick fixes to the concealed carry law in the final hours of the last session to comply with the Supreme Court decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, but members said they would consider more comprehensive changes to the law this session. One of Linsky’s bills would designate “sensitive places” where concealed firearms are still prohibited, like airports, schools, shopping malls, bars, and government buildings, similar to new laws enacted in New York and New Jersey.
But Bay State gun rights enthusiasts could mount a more visible fight against measures to limit their rights than they have in prior years.
“We never stood a chance in local state courts, or even local federal courts, because they were so anti-Second Amendment civil rights,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the state gun rights group Gun Owners’ Action League.
“But now, I think any attack on the Second Amendment is going to [be met with big protests here], especially after Bruen. Because now, the highest court in the land finally agrees with us that [the Second Amendment] is indeed a civil right,” he said.
Wallace agreed that the state’s gun laws need a comprehensive overhaul — but to remove most, if not all, of them.
But for gun safety advocates, Massachusetts’ laws are anything but too strict. Despite the state’s reputation, they say, its signature laws are full of loopholes.
Tucked into Linsky’s bill prohibiting ghost guns and 3D printed guns is a provision that would close what has long been known by gun sellers and regulators as “the parts loophole.”
Currently, the state only regulates a gun once it’s capable of firing a bullet. That has led to an entire cottage industry in which certain dealers specialize in just the sale of parts of guns that would be banned or restricted if fully assembled, such as AR-15s, Glocks, and pistols that haven’t met state safety standards.
It’s unknown how widespread such sales are because they are not reported to the state. But the Globe found 20 dealers in Littleton hawking parts to guns that would be banned if fully assembled.
Linsky and Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Stone Creem also plan to introduce bills that would limit the purchase of guns to one per month. Currently, four other states have similar limits, which are aimed at preventing gun trafficking.
Linsky and Senator Jamie Eldridge
also said they would sponsor bills together to close loopholes in the state’s assault weapon ban in response to the Globe’s reporting.
Linsky is also proposing to take the state’s assault weapons ban much further, by banning all semi-automatic weapons.
“Yeah, that’s not going to fly,” Wallace, the gun rights advocate, laughed.
Matt Stout and Samantha Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.