Under pressure from gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association, state senators Thursday rejected a provision aimed at keeping rifles and shotguns out of the hands of dangerous people before approving a broad bill meant to reduce firearm violence.
The provision, which was included in the House version of the legislation that passed last week and the Senate bill that was debated Thursday, would give police chiefs discretion to deny issuing permits for shotguns and rifles to those they deem unsuitable.
Gun control advocates cried foul and expressed hope that the provision would be reinstated as the two chambers hammer out a compromise measure.
If it is not, said John Rosenthal, the president of Stop Handgun Violence, “the most significant gun safety measure in the bill will have been scuttled and people will die as a result of it, as they have for years.”
State Senator James E. Timilty, Democrat of Walpole, defended the change, which passed by a vote of 28-10.
He said he was concerned that the provision might violate the US Constitution’s Second Amendment and could have landed the antigun violence measure in court. “I think a suit would have followed,” said Timilty, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
He said critics should consider the bill in its totality.
“Calmly viewed, they will find that this is a net gain to public safety,” he added, ticking through a number of the bill’s sections. Massachusetts would join a national database for criminal and mental-health background checks, require schools to develop plans to address students’ mental health needs, and increase penalties for certain firearm crimes, among measures, if the bill becomes law.
But gun control activists and some senators said the stripped provision was an essential part of the legislation.
Under current law, police chiefs must give people who pass a background check and meet other basic criteria a firearms identification card, which allows them purchase shotguns and rifles. But for handguns, police chiefs have discretion on whether to issue a license to carry and can deny one if an applicant is deemed unsuitable. The disputed part of the bill would give chiefs the same discretion they currently have on issuing handgun licenses and apply it to rifles and shotguns.
Some gun owners oppose it because they say police already use the power they have to arbitrarily deny permits, infringing on their right to bear arms.
But former Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis said he hoped the final legislation would include the provision.
“Police chiefs are in a very good position to make that determination. I understand the concern about it, but there needs to be someone that’s close to the community that can make the call,” he said, adding he was pleased with the overall sweep of the Legislature’s effort to address gun violence.
John M. Hohenwarter, governmental affairs director for Massachusetts for the NRA, spent much of the afternoon walking around the area outside the Senate chamber and talking with advocates and at least one legislator.
After the vote, he said he was “very pleased with what the Senate did today. The bill’s in much better shape than it was when it came over from the House.”
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, an NRA affiliate, also expressed pleasure with the bill, calling it history-making.
His group had been neutral on the House legislation, which included the disputed provision giving police chiefs added discretion of who gets a shotgun or rifle, but Thursday pressed hard to remove it.
Janet Goldenberg, one of the leaders of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said the group was “very disappointed” with the amendment stripping out the provision.
“In terms of keeping guns out of the hands of those who pose a danger to themselves, to their households, to the public,” she said, “the Senate bill is really a significant step backward from the House bill, a step backward from public safety.”
“It’s a shame to think that the gun lobby has that kind of influence in Massachusetts,” she said.
If the differing bills go to a conference committee to be reconciled, as is expected, legislators won’t have much time to hash out a bill suitable to both chambers: Formal legislative sessions are scheduled to end in two weeks.
The push in the Legislature for the new measure on gun violence followed the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December 2012.
If the new antigun violence bill becomes law, it will build on the state’s sweeping 1998 gun law, which has been called among the toughest in the nation.