Jim Wallace didn't grow up shooting and was in his 30s before he took a serious interest in politics, but this unconventional activist has become one of the leading voices for gun owners' rights in a state with some of the country's tightest gun restrictions.
As executive director of the 16,000-member Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, the state affiliate for the National Rifle Association, Wallace worked this year with legislators and activists who favor stricter gun controls to shape a new state law lauded by those on both sides of the issue — an approach rarely seen elsewhere in the country.
Wallace, 49, said in an interview that for Bay State gun owners, working with opponents is a practical necessity.
"I wouldn't even use the word 'compromise,' " he said with a chuckle. "It's kind of funny; one of my board members said, 'I wish we were strong enough to compromise.' "
A native of rural Groveland, Wallace grew up camping and fishing but didn't take an interest in hunting until he returned from serving in the Army in 1986.
His involvement with a local fish and game association led him to the League of Essex County Sportsmen's Clubs and a growing interest in activism that eventually got him noticed by the gun owners' league, which hired the then-postal carrier as a lobbyist in 2000.
Since then, he has worked to educate lawmakers and earn gun owners a place at the table when new legislation is proposed, he said.
Early in the process of writing the gun bill the state Legislature passed in July, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo invited legislators and activists on both sides to sit down together and laid out clear terms of engagement, according to John Rosenthal, founder and president of Stop Handgun Violence.
"He said to Jim Wallace like he said to me, 'You're not going to get everything that you want, but if you want to participate, I am listening. If you want to oppose me, then you're going to have to live with what you get,' " said Rosenthal, a gun owner who has long advocated for gun violence prevention laws.
In May, DeLeo introduced a bill containing more than 40 provisions toughening gun laws, based largely on recommendations made by a panel of educators, mental health workers, and law-enforcement officials assembled by the speaker following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Wallace supported some aspects of DeLeo's bill from the outset, including a provision enrolling the state in a federal database enabling police chiefs to deny gun licenses to potential buyers found by courts to be mentally ill, a system in which most other US states already participate.
But Wallace had objections to some provisions strengthening the state's 1998 gun law, already among the nation's most restrictive. With help from sympathetic lawmakers, Wallace and other gun rights proponents carved away measures that they felt unduly restricted their rights.
State Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a Grafton Republican who is a member of the Gun Owners Action League, worked with Wallace to negotiate changes in the bill.
"He's very reasonable, very measured, but believes sternly in the Second Amendment, as I do," said Peterson, the assistant House minority leader. "He was a pleasure to work with on this bill because we were actually able to get a lot of movement on some of the mistakes that were made back in the 1998 law."
Rosenthal said he was surprised to see Wallace and Peterson willing to negotiate and that it was DeLeo's leadership that brought them to the table.
"I believe Jim Wallace made a political calculation," Rosenthal said. "[DeLeo] said to Jim Wallace, 'I'm giving you an opportunity to participate,' and Jim made the right decision."
DeLeo was not available for an interview but released a statement through a spokesman. "Jim Wallace is a strong voice for the positions he advocates," DeLeo said. "I'm proud of the comprehensive gun safety legislation Massachusetts passed."
A series of 11th-hour changes to the House bill removed many provisions gun rights proponents found onerous. When it came to a vote, the gun owners' league was officially neutral, but Wallace offered measured praise, saying the organization was "pleased with the last-minute changes."
As the bill moved through the Senate and then a conference committee, lawmakers responded to other concerns, including a provision enabling local police chiefs to block the sale of rifles and shotguns to those they consider potentially dangerous. Already, chiefs have the authority to prevent handgun sales.
The final legislation requires police to petition courts to block rifle and shotgun sales, a compromise that satisfied Wallace. In the end, he said, he encouraged lawmakers to vote yes.
"I said, 'We have never been so close, in my history, to having a bill that we could all get behind, and you know what? We probably never will again. . . . To let it go would be a travesty,' " Wallace said.
Wallace said his pleasure at seeing the bill passed was only slightly undercut when he was not invited to Governor Deval Patrick's signing ceremony last month, leading to an apology from the state's Executive Office of Public Safety, which called the omission an oversight.
“Must have got lost in the mail — what can I say?” Wallace joked. “It would have been nice to at least been asked.”