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Editorial

Gun safety takes a step forward on Beacon Hill

Here’s some good news for the mothers and students who have been working the State House halls and phones — and indeed, for anyone who cares about effective gun laws. A key legislative committee recently gave its stamp of approval to legislation to allow guns to be taken temporarily from owners deemed at risk of harming themselves or others.

Under the proposed law, local police or a family member could petition a court to order the removal of someone’s guns. If a judge decided there was a real risk the gun owner might hurt himself or others with those weapons, he or she could issue a temporary extreme-risk protection order directing that the firearms be surrendered.

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Within two weeks, however, the court would have to hold a formal hearing at which the gun owner would be present; if the judge then decreed that that person posed “a significant danger” of hurting himself or others with the firearms, the order would be extended for up to a year.

Massachusetts gun laws are widely recognized as among the best and most effective in the nation, but this proposal would nevertheless strengthen them. Although police chiefs have the authority to remove someone’s
guns, there is no uniform process by which that action is
initiated.

That’s one of the reasons why the Major City Police Chiefs Association, which represents three dozen chiefs around the state, has weighed in with House Speaker Robert DeLeo to support the bill introduced by state Representative Marjorie Decker, Democrat of Cambridge.

“While all police chiefs in the Commonwealth have legal discretion in issuing and revoking firearms licenses, some chiefs nonetheless would feel more comfortable if they had prior legal authority before removing firearms,” wrote association president Brian Kyes. “A court ordered removal, which would be provided by an extreme-risk protective order, would provide that prior certainty.” Noting that some are reluctant to share information with the police, Kyes added that this legislation “gives folks an important independent avenue to obtain that critical protective order to keep their loved ones and the community safe.”

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The Gun Owners’ Action League, the local NRA affiliate, opposes this legislation; its alternative, according to the State House News Service, is to establish a hotline to report people at risk of committing suicide and to let
judges confine someone to a mental institution if they deem him an extreme public safety risk. As far as civil liberties are concerned, though, it’s obviously far less intrusive to take away someone’s guns than to take the person himself away. Which is to say, GOAL’s approach really isn’t realistic.

Still, the fact that Decker’s legislation got an overwhelming endorsement from the Joint Committee on Public Safety — 16 yes votes from the 19-member panel — despite GOAL’s opposition, speaks well for its chance. More good news: One House source says the expectation is that DeLeo will take the measure up. The legislature should make its passage a priority for the three months left in this formal session.

But mothers and students, keep up your activism. It’s been important. Take it from Decker. “They have played a critical role in not letting any of us forget what this is really all about,” she says, “and that is saving lives.”

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