Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday signed into law a bill that gives courts the authority to strip weapons from people who have been identified by their families as a danger to themselves or others.
The new statute strengthens already strict gun laws and makes Massachusetts the latest state to respond to a national spate of mass shootings with more restrictions on firearms.
Baker, a Republican, signed the “red flag” legislation at the State House surrounded by Democratic legislators, police officers, mothers who have rallied for stronger gun laws, and a Cambridge Rindge & Latin School student who had been advocating for the bill.
“Even in a state like ours, which has made tremendous progress on this issue, when there’s more to do, we do it — and we do it in a way that gives everybody the chance to be heard,” Baker said.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Beacon Hill’s leading advocate for gun control, said: “As we stand here right now, I think we can rest assured that we did everything that we could do to keep our constituents safe from gun violence in Massachusetts.”
He also said the new law is “just to keep guns away from those folks who should not have guns,” so those who lawfully own guns, “they’ve got nothing to be concerned about.”
But local and national gun rights advocates said they were upset about the law, which gives judges the power to issue an “extreme risk protection order” taking away a person’s guns after a family member, current or former romantic partner, housemate, or local police official signs an affidavit saying the person may pose a risk of causing bodily injury to themselves or someone else.
It “does absolutely nothing to provide help to people who may be suicidal. It also does nothing to keep homicidal monsters away from our children,” said Jim Wallace of the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts.
“There was also an historic opportunity to accomplish great strides in mental health needs within the Commonwealth,” Wallace said. “The Legislature chose only to focus on the guns.”
An earlier version of the legislation specified reasons, such as dangerous mental health issues, why a judge might grant an extreme risk protection order.
The new law, however, gives a district or Boston municipal court wide discretion.
A hearing must occur within 10 days after a person has been red-flagged.
After, if a judge finds by a preponderance of evidence that the person poses a risk of causing bodily injury to themselves or others by having a gun in his or her ownership or possession, the judge must order the person to surrender all firearms — and the right to legally obtain new ones — for up to a year.
Under the new law, a judge can also issue an emergency extreme risk protection order before the person whose guns are taken away has a chance to make his or her case.
That’s sensible, advocates say, because the law wouldn’t work to protect public safety if a suicidal or homicidal person could hold on to his or her weapons for up to 10 days.
But the National Rifle Association raised the alarm on the newly signed law, perhaps hinting at potential future legal action.
“Nobody wants dangerous people to have access to firearms, which is why the NRA supports risk protection orders that respect the due process of rights and ensure those found mentally ill receive the care they so urgently need,” said Art Thomm, Massachusetts state director for the NRA. “This bill, unfortunately, does none of that. Not only does it fail to provide any sort of mental health treatment but allows the state to deny law-abiding gun owners their due process of rights.”
The Constitution forbids states from depriving someone of property “without due process of law.”
State Representative Marjorie C. Decker, a key sponsor of the bill, said the NRA “needs to catch up with its membership and with the American people and start advocating for common sense gun laws that now have been proven to save lives.”
Decker and other advocates say the law will save lives by, for instance, taking guns away from people who are suicidal, preventing some of them from going through with the act.
The law requires that a court provide information about counseling services, substance abuse disorders, and involuntary hospitalization to people who have been flagged by their family or housemates as a risk, and to those doing the flagging. But it does not require people who have their guns taken away by a court to get mental health treatment of any kind.
Massachusetts joins several states in having a red flag law on the books.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Washington have such laws.
Advocates cheered what they framed a big leap forward.
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a victim of gun violence and one of the country’s most prominent gun control supporters, lauded Massachusetts policy makers for working “tirelessly with gun prevention advocates to get this bill passed and for showing the rest of the country how we can work to help get guns out of hands of those experiencing a crisis.”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts had 242 firearm deaths in 2016. That meant 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people, a lower rate than in any other state, according to the CDC.