Taking guns in times of trouble
Massachusetts has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation, but there’s always room for improvement.
That’s why members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America are prowling the State House halls, building support for legislation to temporarily take firearms away from those whose mental or emotional condition renders them a risk to themselves or others.
Under state Representative Marjorie Decker’s bill, local law enforcement or a family member could petition a court to order the confiscation of someone’s guns. If a judge decides there’s a real risk that the gun owner might use them to hurt himself or others, the judge could issue a temporary extreme-risk protection order under which firearms could be taken. A formal legal hearing that included the gun owner would have to follow within 14 days. If the judge then decreed that the gun owner posed “a significant danger” of hurting self or others with the firearms, the order would be extended for a year.
That’s a remedy other states have adopted after mass shootings by angry, alienated men whose previous behavior had raised red flags, but whose weapons couldn’t be taken because of a lack of legal authority .
In determining whether a gun owner poses a safety risk, the judge could consider things such as recent acts of violence by the person against self or others; use or threats of physical force; violation of abuse- or harassment-prevention orders; convictions for domestic violence; reckless brandishing of a firearm; corroborated evidence of drug or alcohol abuse; and any “dangerous” mental health issues.
Skeptics note that local police chiefs already have considerable leeway in revoking gun permits. That’s true — yet the Major City Police Chiefs Association, which represents three dozen chiefs around the state, has weighed in with a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo in support of the bill. “[S]ome chiefs . . . would feel more comfortable if they had prior legal authority before removing firearms,” wrote association president Brian Kyes.
Angela Christiana, of Moms Demand Action, Boston, says the law would help prevent suicides, which accounted for 58 percent of Massachusetts gun deaths in 2016.
“Often when someone is considering suicide, it is a temporary state,” she says. “If they have access to guns, their ability to be successful at committing suicide is about 90 percent.” Connecticut has had such a law since 1999; one study credits the statute with preventing dozens of suicides.
The bill addresses mental illness, an issue gun-rights advocates often focus on, and with due process protections. So the gun groups of course support it, right? Wrong. The Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts NRA affiliate, says it is “extraordinarily cruel for the law to treat a person who is suicidal or depressed in the same manner as a potential mass murderer.” Fear not, gun guys; in cases where the worry was self-harm, the judge’s order would make that clear, says Representative Decker.
“If we really want to do something about mental health and gun safety, we’ve gotta walk the talk,” says Molly Lanzarotta, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action.
So what are the prospects for passage? The Senate is expected to be supportive — if the bill clears the House. Decker says she has had good talks with Speaker DeLeo, who led the push for the 2014 gun-laws rewrite but hasn’t been able to secure a sit-down with Governor Baker.
When I inquired, both offices offered up bowls of lukewarm mush. Ah, excuse me, careful statements. DeLeo’s spokeswoman said he’s having conversations on the issue; Baker’s spokeswoman said he’s open to working with the legislature on the matter.
Here’s what seems to be happening: Baker is waiting to see what DeLeo will do, because Mr. Manners worries that if he pushes publicly for this, DeLeo might interpret that as a declaration that his own 2014 gun-law effort didn’t go far enough — and get his nose out of joint.
Um, guys, you’re supposed to be the dynamic duo of smart gun laws. Couldn’t you just sit down and work this out?