Last week, Stop Handgun Violence unveiled its latest gun safety billboard campaign that said, "We're not anti-gun, we're pro-life: Massachusetts Gun Laws Save Lives." The new message briefly went up on dozens of donated billboards across Massachusetts only to come down two days later after the local NRA affiliate, Gun Owners' Action League, argued that the billboards were misleading.
Initially the gun lobby took issue with the white truce flag in a gun barrel, even though both Stop Handgun Violence and GOAL supported Speaker DeLeo's gun legislation last year. Also given that many Stop Handgun Violence Board members and supporters, including myself, are gun owners and what could be more pro-life than gun violence prevention, the pro-life phrase didn't seem to be the issue. That leaves the statement, "Massachusetts Gun Laws Save Lives." GOAL argued in an Associated Press story that "gun-related crimes have increased since the state passed a package of gun laws in 1998."
When I cofounded Stop Handgun Violence in 1994 and began a public awareness campaign to reduce gun violence without banning most guns, there were 309 gun deaths in Massachusetts that year. In 2013, the most recent year that data is available from the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 213 gun deaths.
The law we passed in 1998 had five main aspects. First, it required firearms training before receiving a license to own a firearm. Second, it required that all firearms be stored in a locked container or be equipped with an approved locking device, unless under the gun owners direct control. Third, it required guns meet minimum manufacturing and consumer safety standards, the first such consumer protection law covering firearms in the nation. Fourth, the law defined large capacity weapons and restricted ownership to individuals who met licensing standards. Finally, the law increased penalties for unlawful possession and use of a firearm.
Together, these provisions created a host of new criminal laws, which have been enforced and have led to more arrests for gun-related crimes. This is especially true given the fact that Massachusetts criminals can still buy guns without detection from private gun dealers in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont without undergoing a criminal background check or even showing proof of ID.
In addition, we have made significant progress in firearm-related suicides and accidents in the last 17 years. Since 1998, the Massachusetts firearm suicide rate has decreased 46 percent. This further underscores the importance of the safe gun storage provisions of the 1998 law that were intended to make gun ownership safer by preventing in-home accidents and suicides.
If the gun lobby honestly thinks that "Massachusetts Gun Laws Save Lives" is a misleading message, I encourage them to do some soul searching for who is doing the "misleading."
John E. Rosenthal is cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence.