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Lawmakers agree on deal to tighten Mass. gun laws

George N. Peterson Jr., a Grafton Republican, held up a firearms identification card application while testifying during a hearing on gun rights laws at the Statehouse in Boston, Tuesday, June 3, 2014.
George N. Peterson Jr., a Grafton Republican, held up a firearms identification card application while testifying during a hearing on gun rights laws at the Statehouse in Boston, Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Charles Krupa/AP

Massachusetts House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement Wednesday night on legislation that would tighten what are already some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.

Police departments could go to court to keep rifles and shotguns out of the hands of people they deem dangerous under a compromise worked out by the lawmakers.

The new legislation, crafted in response to the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., would also require the state to join a national database for criminal and mental health background checks and mandate that schools develop plans for students’ mental health needs.

“My sense is there should be enough votes to pass it in both houses,” said Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a Grafton Republican who served on the conference committee that worked out the agreement.

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With lawmakers racing to meet the Thursday deadline for passing legislation this session, House and Senate negotiators also reached agreement to establish a sales tax holiday on Aug. 16 and 17 and came to a deal on a separate bill to strengthen the state’s domestic violence law.

Governor Deval Patrick alluded to the time crunch Wednesday when he signed into law one of the major bills that has reached his desk, a measure aimed at curbing harassment outside abortion clinics.

“There’s a lot of business before the Legislature, which is why I am going to keep my comments brief, and let you all get back to work,” he said, prompting chuckles from House and Senate members who were bracing for late-night sessions.

The conflict between the two chambers on the gun bill centered on a provision in the original House bill that gave police broad discretion to deny a license for a shotgun or rifle to anyone they deem unsuitable. Existing law gives police that discretion to deny a handgun permit.

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“Obviously, the suitability issue was the main sticking point,” said Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who served on the conference committee.

Hunters and civil liberties groups alike believed the House provision was overreaching. The Senate voted two weeks ago to strip it out of its version of the gun bill.

That created the main flashpoint between the two chambers. And while negotiators ultimately agreed to give the police new powers, they limited those powers.

Under the legislation, a police department that aims to deny, suspend, or revoke a shotgun or rifle license could not do so unilaterally. It must file a petition in court, with a written notice explaining the reasons. The court must base its decision, under the law, on “reliable, articulable, and credible information” that suggests one “could potentially create a risk to public safety.”

Advocates on both sides of the bill were still digesting the latest version of the legislation Wednesday night.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said that at first glance the bill looked promising.

“It looks pretty good,” he said. “I’m really hoping it’s something we can support.”

John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said he was disappointed the agreement did not give chiefs the unilateral authority to deny permits for rifles and shotguns, but called the bill a step forward nonetheless.

“It’s certainly a burden on chiefs who are simply trying to save lives, but it’s a compromise,” Rosenthal said. “It does give police chiefs discretion, and the check and balance with the court, which is far better than nothing.”

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House and Senate conferees also reconciled competing economic development and domestic violence bills.

The main issue on the economic development bill was the weekend lawmakers would set aside for a sales tax holiday — an important event for retailers and shoppers alike.

The House and Senate eventually settled on Aug. 16-17 after initially choosing different weekends. House and Senate negotiators also reached agreement on a bill to toughen domestic violence laws, which was sparked in part by the case of Jared Remy, who had a long record of assault cases before he killed his girlfriend last August.

The wide-ranging bill would toughen penalties for repeat abusers, create new laws against strangulation and suffocation, and give victims up to 15 days of leave from their jobs to help them recover or receive medical attention and counseling.

Judges and other court personnel would have to undergo regular training sessions on domestic violence. In addition, the bill would create a new crime, first offense domestic assault and battery, punishable by up to 2½ years in jail.

Representative Garrett J. Bradley, a Hingham Democrat who was the lead House negotiator on the bill, said one of the most controversial provisions of the bill would mandate that anyone arrested for domestic abuse be held for six hours before being released on bail.

Defense lawyers firmly objected to that six-hour delay, calling it unconstitutional. But Bradley, a former prosecutor, said it would provide an important “cooling off” period for an accused batterer to sober up and for the victim to find a safe place to stay.

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“This really is a bill that empowers victims and plugs some gaps in the system,” Bradley said.


Michael Levenson can be reached michael.levenson@globe.com. David Scharfenberg can be reached at David.Scharfenberg@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified when the Newtown, Conn., school massacre occurred.