Massachusetts lawmakers have hit an impasse over a wide-ranging gun control bill because of bureaucratic infighting that critics say is the latest example of petty dysfunction that routinely slows policy making on Beacon Hill to a crawl.
The dispute hinges on one of the most basic decisions before House and Senate leaders: which legislative committee should hold a public hearing on the gun bill, which is a top priority of House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano.
Some elected officials, open government experts, and activists on both sides of the gun control issue say the deadlock is not only holding up important legislation, but underscoring a larger theme of inefficiency due to a clash of personalities on Beacon Hill.
Jay Kaufman, a former state representative, said that “as a citizen, it’s hard to have patience for what looks to be purely political shenanigans that get in the way of the substance.”
“On a good day, I am shaking my head in disbelief,” said Kaufman, who now serves on the steering committee of the Coalition to Reform Our Legislature. “On a not-so-good day, I am very disappointed and angry.”
The impasse is the most recent in a long pattern of bickering among lawmakers in the secretive, deadline-averse Legislature. While usually such infighting is kept behind closed doors, this past spring a conflict between the chairs of one of the many joint House-Senate committees spilled into public view. The panel has now temporarily split in two and is working as separate entities. To date, the two sides have not resolved their differences.
Meanwhile, six months into the current session, the Legislature still hasn’t approved the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, nor has it passed a tax cut plan that was promised during the last session.
It’s also been more than a month since the governor, House speaker, and Senate president engaged in their traditional leadership meeting. One that was scheduled for Wednesday was canceled after the State House was closed because of a fire in the building, according to a House aide, and has not been rescheduled.
Moreover, the Legislature is just days from breaking for its traditional August recess.
“It’s a badly broken system, and I think people who care about particular legislative priorities are becoming fed up,” said Peter Enrich, a retired Northeastern University law professor who leads a coalition that promotes legislative transparency. “The challenges of doing reasonable legislation around an issue like gun control at the state level is critical.”
The gun bill, meanwhile, has yet to have a public hearing in this legislative session, which is typically the main forum in which residents and interest groups can be heard. The House wants the bill to be handled by the Judiciary Committee, citing the fallout of a 2022 Supreme Court decision expanding gun rights across the country and the committee’s history of handling bills related to court decisions. The Senate wants the bill to be heard in the Public Safety Committee, which has historically considered bills related to firearms and gun control.
At issue is a 140-page package of gun control measures, seeking to stem the flow of illegal firearms into the state, modernize firearm laws, and target so-called ghost guns. The bill, filed nearly a month ago, has received praise from gun control supporters and drawn the ire of others, including Representative Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, police chiefs in Plymouth and Ware, who have blasted it on their department’s Facebook pages, and the Liberal Gun Club, a pro-Second Amendment voice for left-of-center gun owners.
Opponents argue that the bill goes too far to broaden existing laws and definitions, putting law-abiding gun dealers or owners at risk of running afoul of the law. For example, critics contend it would broaden the definition of “assault rifle” such that current lawful gun owners could find themselves in possession of an illegal weapon.
“After reading and studying this bill, I see very little that would make this bill at all palatable to any lawful gun owner or sportsmen in the Commonwealth,” Durant said in a statement.
The author of the bill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Day, said this week that he has “no idea” when the legislation might get to the floor for a vote. He also said he would be open to voting on a bill that has not had a public hearing, which Mariano, the top House leader, hasn’t discounted.
And Mariano last week said he would “look at the different options that are at my disposal.”
Day noted the legislation was born out of earlier work by lawmakers that included public testimony, and an 11-stop listening tour across the state.
Each stop focused on a single aspect, such as illegal firearm trafficking, violence prevention, ghost guns that are assembled from kits and other untraceable firearms, as well as measures aimed at preventing gun use in suicides, domestic violence, and school shootings.
“We’ve done that in the past,” Day said of skipping the hearing. “It’s a dispute between chambers right now. . . . I think there are a bunch of options that legislators use all the time to move legislation forward, and what those options are for this particular piece of legislation remains to be seen.”
Proponents of the bill urged lawmakers to put aside their differences.
“We need our lawmakers to come together, recognize the urgency of addressing our gun violence crisis, and swiftly fulfill their public commitment to passing a strong bill,” said Jennifer Robinson, a volunteer from the Massachusetts chapter of Moms Demand Action. “The sooner that happens the more lives we save.”
But activists from the Gun Owner’s Action League said the bill is the culmination “of a flat-out tantrum” on the part of the Legislature and would place extreme restrictions on gun owners.
“We were told over and over again during the chairman’s bogus ‘listening tour,’ from his own mouth, that lawful gun owners are not the problem,” Jim Wallace, executive director of GOAL, said. “His bill reflects just the opposite.”
Those who have worked on gun legislation in the past say it’s possible for the Legislature to eventually overcome the stalemate.
In 2014, lawmakers passed legislation that was originally motivated by the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December 2012. The bill was designed in part by a panel of outside legal specialists who met with gun owners, dealers, police officers, school officials, and others to build good will around the bill.
Under the main provisions of the law, Massachusetts joined a national database for criminal and mental-health background checks, required schools to develop plans to address students’ mental health needs, and gave police discretion to deny a permit for a rifle or shotgun if an applicant is deemed unsuitable.
The leader of the panel was Jack McDevitt, who recently retired from his role as a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern. He said the key to getting broad support was “a lot of communication.”
Remarkably, the 2014 bill drew praise from gun control advocates as well as from the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, which called the legislation “a great victory for the Second Amendment.”
“I don’t know how much has gone on that way,” McDevitt said of the recent impasse. “The goal is always to have conversations . . . the greater good is to get the legislation passed. Massachusetts does have really good gun laws. But the world changes. You have to keep adapting.”