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editorial

Legislature must act on plan to tighten gun laws

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the states of Connecticut, New York, California, Maryland, Illinois, and Colorado all rushed to place new limits on the purchase of assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, expand background checks of gun buyers, or both. Despite prodding by Governor Patrick, Massachusetts’ Legislature decided to move more slowly on new gun laws. The desire to proceed carefully is reasonable, since the state’s existing restrictions were already thorough enough to yield the nation’s second-lowest death rate by guns, behind only Hawaii. But a panel chaired by Northeastern University criminologist Jack McDevitt has now delivered a reasonable set of proposals for strengthening the state’s gun laws, and it’s time for the Legislature to move forward with these greater protections.

The eight-member panel, which was appointed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and included experts in the fields of criminal justice, public health, mental health, education, and law enforcement, made these recommendations:

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 Police chiefs should adopt a tighter definition for who should be declared “unsuitable” to purchase a gun, a category that should include some people who have been arrested for crimes, even if they weren’t convicted. Those restrictions should also be applied to rifles and shotguns, along with handguns.

 State officials should report people identified by courts as substance abusers or mentally ill to a federal background-check database. Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that don’t participate in the database, in a well-intentioned, but excessive, effort to preserve the privacy of those who suffer from mental illness.

 All private gun sales and background checks should be overseen by a licensed firearms dealer.

 Firearms training courses should be standardized and accredited, and should include experience in firing guns.

 Felons should no longer be allowed to regain the right to purchase a firearm five years after the completion of their sentences.

The panel’s 44 recommendations provide a template for compromise.

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The panel also suggested ways to reduce violence that don’t include new gun controls, such as creating school-safety protocols and increasing funding for mental health, substance abuse, and job programs for young people.

At the same time, the group declined to endorse Patrick’s plan to limit gun sales to one per month. It also shied away from proposals to further limit the size of magazines, saying current research does not yet merit such a step.

Taken together, the panel’s 44 recommendations provide a template for compromise between the House and the Senate, and between gun-control advocates and skeptics from rural districts. DeLeo deserves credit for promising a vote on a new bill before the summer recess. The entire Legislature should follow through.

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