Massachusetts needs to get serious about new gun controls

Massachusetts has some of the strongest gun control laws in the nation, and some of the lowest gun death rates to show for it. But Governor Patrick, Mayor Menino, and many legislators have long wanted to tighten the state’s laws, as the toll from guns remains too high: Just last weekend in Boston, nine people were shot, one fatally, in a spate of unrelated incidents from South Boston to Franklin Park to Roxbury to Roslindale. But nearly all new legislation has been stymied by a Legislature that, even in this state, is susceptible to lobbying by gun groups that speak more for the firearms industry than any hunters or collectors.

Now, as yet another mass shooting — this one in Washington, D.C. — dominates the news, it’s time for the Legislature to approve the measures proposed by Patrick after last December’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. They include limiting gun purchases to one a month, requiring background checks at gun shows, and entering mental health records into the federal background check system.

It’s often argued that such measures don’t really work because, as the slogan goes, criminals will always get guns. But an examination of mass shootings shows otherwise: Many such killers purchased large numbers of weapons over a short period — a clear red flag. Patrick’s proposal would make that impossible in Massachusetts. The man suspected of killing 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard this week, Aaron Alexis, reportedly bought a shotgun in Virginia last week, part of the mini-arsenal with which he conducted his rampage. But he also reportedly was treated for serious mental conditions, including blackouts, paranoia, and voices in his head. Even some gun advocates concede that the nation needs laws to make sure people with severe mental illness cannot purchase weapons.


At a State House hearing this week, Kim Odom, the mother of a 13-year-old Dorchester boy who was shot to death in 2007 coming home from playing pickup basketball, declared: “We can’t dismiss the fact that this is impacting all of us from all walks of life . . . We need to have a unified voice.”

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That voice isn’t strong enough. Federal legislation proposed in the wake of Newtown to renew the assault-weapons ban and limit ammunition clips didn’t come close to passage. Even a bill to require background checks of buyers at gun shows, forged through a bipartisan compromise, was blocked in the Senate.

Making such measures the law of the land would be greatly helpful to Massachusetts and other states that have enacted their own controls. More than 60 percent of illegal guns recovered in Boston come from states with lax gun laws. So far, only Connecticut, New York, California, and Colorado have approved new measures over the last year, but just last week, voters in Colorado defeated two legislators who supported that state’s new law — prompted by the Aurora movie massacre — that expanded gun-purchase background checks and 15-round ammunition limits.

Now is the time for Massachusetts to regain its voice on gun control. Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan in the Newtown rampage, asked at last week’s State House hearing, “If these sensible steps can help save lives, why wouldn’t we take them?” The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security should answer Hockley by drafting a bill that reaffirms Massachusetts’ voice, even if it is a voice in the bewildering wilderness of guns in America.