The next frontier for gun control legislation in Massachusetts
Massachusetts prides itself for taking gun control seriously, and has the results to prove it. The state’s gun mortality rate is the second-lowest in the country: 3.7 gun deaths per 100,000 people, according to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trailing only Hawaii.
But preventing gun violence requires a sustained and vigilant approach. So what are the policy holes that need to be filled next?
Here’s one: Develop a better understanding of where guns used in crime come from, in order to fine-tune interdiction strategies and expose irresponsible sellers.
Crime guns often originate elsewhere, including neighboring states with weak gun laws. That’s not much surprise, considering the difficulty of buying a firearm in Massachusetts. Before anyone can buy a gun in Massachusetts, they have to subject themselves to a background check and file an application for a gun permit from their local police department. Only then can they go to a gun seller. Once they’ve acquired the firearm, they have to register it in a state database.
Yet to avoid that hassle, all one has to do is drive up a few miles to New Hampshire or Maine, where the process is far easier and the rules are looser. New Hampshire does not require background checks online, at gun shows, or in private sales; in Maine, gun dealers or purchasers don’t need to get a state license. Not surprisingly, a 2017 trace data analysis showed that an increased share of crime guns recovered in Boston came from those two New England states.
The more gun data the state analyzes and makes public, the easier it should become to identify trafficking and crime patterns, and the extent to which lost and stolen guns end up in the hands of criminals.
Massachusetts state Senator Cynthia Creem filed legislation this year that builds on existing law requiring all firearms recovered in crimes to be submitted for tracing by local law enforcement. Creem’s bill requires the state to fund a university or nonprofit to analyze the collected trace data and produce biennial reports. The specific data points for the reporting include: statistics on firearms crimes, arrests, and prosecutions; aggregate data on the sources of crime guns; purchase and sales patterns as they relate to crime guns; and reporting on the usefulness of the existing requirement to notify law enforcement if guns are lost or stolen.
“If you aggregate all that data from tracing for a given year or five years or three years, what it does is that it reveals trafficking patterns,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, in a meeting with the Globe editorial board last week. “It is extraordinary that data about . . . the sources of crime guns is not public. By not making it public and not using it in the aggregate. . . you’re handcuffing police officers.”
Another idea Feinblatt recommended: Legislators should take aim at gun manufacturers by requiring improvements to gun design like microstamping. That’s a form of ballistic identification technology where a unique code, including the gun’s serial number, is automatically imprinted in the bullet casing as the gun is fired. This allows police to trace a handgun without having to physically recover it, using only the cartridge, which may be all that’s available at a crime scene.
Currently, California is the only state with a microstamping law, which was signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 and went into effect in 2013. (The District of Columbia passed a similar microstamping law that went into effect in 2018.) It requires that no new or modified handgun models be sold in the state without the technology. But gun manufacturers have refused to update their firearms with microstamping, so no newer gun handgun models have been sold in California since 2013. The gun lobby has also filed suit against the law, a case that is pending before a federal appeals court. But the technology promises to revolutionize crime-solving. On this cutting-edge idea, California has been a leader — even if it has had to endure ensuing legal headaches.
As good as Massachusetts has been on gun control, it can always do better — and it will have to if it wants to remain a model for common-sense improvements to gun safety.