Have we in Massachusetts been kidding ourselves for years about having banned assault weapons? Attorney General Maura Healey says the answer is yes.
Healey issued an order Wednesday directing the state’s 350 gun shops to quit selling copies or duplicates of weapons that are banned in Massachusetts. A staggering 10,000 such weapons were sold here last year alone, in a state where such weapons are supposedly illegal.
In a press conference and subsequent interview, Healey explained that gun manufacturers have found it easy to get around the assault weapons ban, which dates to 1998. Manufacturers simply alter minor characteristics of the banned weapons and declare to gun sellers that the reworked weapons are now “compliant” with Massachusetts law.
“They’ve elevated form over function,” Healey said. “The ban is intended to deal with how the gun functions. This gets back to being about the function of these incredibly dangerous weapons.”
Healey said her office reviewed gun sales after the massacre in Orlando on June 12 that left 49 patrons dead in a nightclub. She was as surprised as anyone, she said, to discover that gun shops in the state are selling firearms that are almost indistinguishable from the ones most people believed to be banned.
In response to what is basically a clarification of existing law, gun activists have pushed back. There has been a reported run on such assault weapon knockoffs before they were pulled from the shelves. And the state’s affiliate of the National Rifle Association , the Gun Owners Action League, denounced Healey’s action and planned a rally this weekend at the State House.
At the announcement of the new rules, Healey was surrounded by prosecutors, police chiefs, and relatives of victims of violence who support getting rid of the loophole and making the ban effective. They reflected the broad opposition to the sale of weapons whose primary purpose is to kill people quickly. In this state at least, tough gun laws have a history of popular support.
While the focus on assault weapons is timely, it is just one step toward a sane gun policy. To my mind, too many guns of all kinds are on the street, and this step by Healey won’t fix that. But that doesn’t mean that closing this loophole isn’t important.
“I realize there are a lot of handguns and pistols out there that are killing people,” Healey said. “We know that, and we know there is work to do to address this issue — to crack down on illegal trafficking of guns and to keep guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or other people. This isn’t a panacea, but we want to take this step.”
The image of people lining up to buy military-style weapons before they disappear from gun stores just underscores the insanity of the gun culture that grips us. These are weapons nobody needs. Yet the idea that they could become unavailable is enough to drive hundreds, maybe thousands of people to buy firepower they will never need or use. Why?
If anything, the spasm of mass shootings over the past few weeks has only undermined the arguments for equipping millions of Americans with all the weaponry they can afford.No one is safer — but the public is even more anxious. Meanwhile, the gun industry manipulates those emotions for profit.
Healey stressed the emotional toll mass violence takes on all of us. “The thing that kills me is there’s such commonality in this experience,” she said. “You think of police officers who are fearful right now as they approach a car because of the prevalence of guns. Young people who may be afraid of police. I think we should recognize that there’s fear but unite around a common understanding that we want to do everything we can to make sure our kids, our families, are safe.”
Uniting around getting rid of dangerous weapons that have no legitimate rationale seems like an excellent place to start.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.