Facing mounting criticism from Governor Charlie Baker, dozens of legislators from both parties, and gun rights advocates, Attorney General Maura Healey insisted Wednesday that her ban on so-called copycat assault weapons is clear, enforceable, and already reducing the sale of such firearms.
Even as state records show that guns that appear to be banned under her edict were still being sold as recently as Tuesday, Healey said Massachusetts has seen a “precipitous drop” in the sales of copies or duplicates of assault weapons, and some firearms manufacturers have stopped marketing such guns as “Massachusetts compliant.”
The shifts show that, contrary to what “the NRA, GOAL, and others would want to suggest, there is not confusion about this, there is no lack of clarity,” Healey said, using acronyms for the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts. “Gun dealers have called our office directly and we have answered questions. It is why we’ve seen that there’s this drop in the sales. Gun dealers get it.”
Last week, Healey, a Democrat, issued an “enforcement notice” and said she was acting to seal a gap in Massachusetts’ longstanding assault weapons ban. For years, she said, the gap has allowed gun manufacturers and stores to produce and sell guns that are functionally identical to assault weapons, but with small changes that saw them marketed as legal in the state. The notice included a two-part test for determining which guns qualify as duplicates, but it did not include a specific list of such guns.
The move drew an immediate rebuke from gun rights advocates, like the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which trumpeted this headline: “Massachusetts Attorney General Unilaterally Bans Thousands of Previously Legal Guns.”
Over the weekend, a bipartisan group of more than 50 legislators sent Healey a letter strongly opposing her new push. On Monday, Harold P. Naughton Jr., the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said in a letter that he has serious concerns about Healey’s action.
“While I understand your intentions in this matter, I feel this is a misuse and overstepping of authority,” said Naughton, who briefly ran for attorney general against Healey in the 2014 Democratic primary.
On Tuesday, the Baker administration said Healey’s push is so unclear that it might inadvertently prohibit many more firearms that have long been legal in Massachusetts.
Public Safety and Security Secretary Daniel Bennett wrote in a letter that Healey’s action had created such uncertainty that people across the state might not be able to figure out which guns are legal and which are not.
“Depending on how your office is interpreting the two-part test you have articulated for determining whether something is a ‘copy or duplicate’ of a listed assault weapon, a large number of firearms, including pistols that have been sold here legally for decades, may be unintentionally affected,” Bennett wrote.
In a telephone interview with the Globe, Healey rejected that supposition: “I don’t think that’s accurate,” she said.
The attorney general’s action has the support of law enforcement officials and gun control activists.
But critics have raised questions about how Healey’s push will be enforced.
Healey said her office has both criminal and civil authority to charge for noncompliance with the assault weapons ban.
Asked directly whether she will go after gun shops that continue to sell weapons that her office believes to be copies or duplicates of assault weapons, Healey replied: “Absolutely.”
The state assault weapons ban prohibits a list of specific guns, such as all models of AKs, including AK-47s. It also prohibits semiautomatic rifles that can take a detachable magazine and have at least two other specific gun features, like a grenade launcher or flash suppressor.
And, notably, the ban prohibits copies or duplicates of assault weapons.
But, for years, the state has interpreted that provision to allow the sale of firearms that Healey now says are banned weapons.
Some of those guns appear to have been sold in the days following her July 20 announcement, including Tuesday. That’s according to a list of the makes and models of rifles sold in Massachusetts, obtained by the Globe through a public records request to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which tracks daily gun sales.
Healey communications director Cyndi Roy Gonzalez acknowledged that the data suggest that some copy or duplicate assault weapons were sold Tuesday. But, she said, the numbers are significantly down from a few days ago. She also noted that some of those weapons may have been sold legally — to law enforcement personnel, for example.
Healey, who emphasized the importance of the assault weapons ban after several mass shootings, said her office has the authority and the obligation to act: “I stand by our action here.”
The attorney general, who was sworn in at the beginning of last year, said her office had been diligent about crafting its push.
But, she said, “ultimately it may be up for the courts to decide.”
Material from the State House News Service was used in this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.