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Lexington debates proposal to ban semi-automatic weapons

A Lexington resident who wants to ban certain types of semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in a community known as the birthplace of American liberty said town leaders are urging him to back off the controversial proposal.

Robert Rotberg, the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, submitted a citizen’s petition for the upcoming annual Town Meeting that would prohibit the manufacture, sale, ownership, or possession of specific weapons in Lexington.

“We’re not taking anything away,’’ said Rotberg, a Town Meeting member for 41 years. “We’re strengthening the rights of Lexingtonians to be secure in their private houses and less fearful of people spraying bullets at them.’’

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The proposal has drawn the attention of gun rights advocates, who are urging Lexington residents who oppose such limits to attend the Town Meeting discussion April 6 at Battin Hall, just a few blocks from where the Battle of Lexington took place in 1775.

Rotberg said the Board of Selectmen recently asked him to reconsider the proposed bylaw change and instead submit a nonbinding resolution. Rotberg said he plans to meet with the board Tuesday in the Cary Memorial Building to discuss the potential compromise.

“The selectmen have asked me to consider this change in order to provide for a more orderly Town Meeting discussion on April 6 and to reduce the possibility of a confrontation,” said Rotberg, president emeritus of World Peace Foundation.

Police Chief Mark Corr said in an e-mail that he is recommending no weapons be allowed in or around Battin Hall the night of the Town Meeting debate. He said metal detectors will be used to screen those entering the hall.

“The Town Meeting is a lawful assembly that must be able to debate and vote upon articles without unlawful interference,’’ he said. “Although the overwhelming majority of e-mails, websites, and blogs have been respectful, there has been hate speech and comments that give me good reason to suspect someone might consider disrupting the Town Meeting.”

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Joseph Pato, a selectman, said board members haven’t discussed the potential public safety impact. Rather, he said, the board thinks a resolution, not a bylaw, is simply a more appropriate avenue for the proposal. He said gun control laws are “something that should be handled at the state level.’’

If Town Meeting did approve the bylaw, the state attorney general’s office would review it and rule on its legality.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, said the state has among the toughest gun control laws in the nation and there is no need to go further. He also said Rotberg’s proposal would ban guns that are commonly used for competitions, hunting, or training.

According to GOAL, the proposal seeks to ban any semi-automatic rifle or handgun that has a removable magazine capable of holding 10 or more rounds. It also seeks to ban any magazine that holds 10 or more rounds.

Wallace said it doesn’t make sense for individual communities to approve their own gun laws. “As much as we don’t like state laws, the state needs to be in control,’’ he said. “You can’t allow local municipalities to create a patchwork of laws across the state. That’s just untenable.’’

Rotberg said he will listen to selectmen Tuesday night and then make a decision about whether to move forward with the bylaw or a resolution. The resolution would urge the Legislature to strengthen the state’s gun control laws.

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“On behalf of many citizens, I am willing to consider a resolution because, worked as close to the bylaw as possible, it will show representative Town Meeting’s opposition to assault weapons almost as clearly as would a bylaw change,’’ he said. “A resolution may not immediately energize the great and general court to enact stronger anti-assault weapon legislation than now exists, but it could elicit similar resolutions from other Massachusetts cities and towns, thus putting pressure on the Legislature.’’

Rotberg also acknowledged the possibility that the attorney general could shoot down the bylaw change.

However, Lexington wouldn’t be the first community to consider enacting its own gun laws.

Last year, a federal appeals court upheld a Chicago suburb’s ban on assault weapons. In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the 2013 ordinance enacted by Highland Park does not violate the Second Amendment, saying municipalities ought to have leeway in deciding how to regulate firearms. The US Supreme Court in December refused to hear a challenge to the ordinance.

Rotberg said he decided to pursue the bylaw in Lexington now because it was “golden opportunity’’ on the heels of that decision.


Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.