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Legislators get local input on gun legislation

Date: 8/8/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – State Rep. Harold Naughton, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security made it clear: his committee was not seeking to make legal gun ownership more burdensome in the Commonwealth and does not want to do anything to make the business climate for companies such as Smith & Wesson any more difficult.

The committee, which has been conducting meetings around the state, convened at the Karen Sprague at American International College on Aug. 2. The event attracted more than 500 people, with some attendees waiting in the lobby seeking a seat.

Before the Legislature are 57 bills on aspects of regulating firearms and attempting to prevent them from being used for crime from representatives and senators and one bill from Gov. Deval Patrick.

This was the third such formal hearing and Naughton told Reminder Publications, “What we’ve been seeing is people coming in and testifying in general on gun violence and gun ownership. Now and then there have been some people who are testifying on specific pieces of legislation and we’re happy to hear that as well.”

The tone, so far, Naughton said has ranged from “firearms owners who are concerned about their Second Amendment rights and anything to impede lawful gun ownership and I tell them every day, ‘No, we’re not heading in that direction.’ We already have the strongest firearms laws in the country. I think we’re in a good place there.”

He added they have also spoken to community activists who are concerned about the level of gun violence in their community, in addition to conversations with representatives and employees of manufacturers including Smith & Wesson.

After the formal hearings have concluded Naughton said the goal would be to take the elements of the current bills and do one comprehensive bill to address gun violence.

Among the actions in Patrick’s proposal include “[bringing] Massachusetts into compliance with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, a federal law passed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. It will require that the courts transmit all required mental health adjudications and orders to the state’s criminal justice information system to be provided to the Attorney General of the United States for the purpose of firearms licensing only. The legislation also creates a federally mandated relief from disabilities program, which allows individuals who have mental health disqualifications to once again become eligible for gun ownership by showing that they are not likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”

The governor’s bill also “creates four new crimes: assault and battery by means of a firearm, assault by means of a firearm, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and commission of a violent misdemeanor while in possession of a weapon. These crimes will give police and prosecutors additional tools to protect the community from those who possess and use guns in a crime. Further, the bill increases the authorized minimum penalties for third and fourth offenses of illegal possession and carrying of firearms, shotguns, rifles, and machine guns, and increases the maximum punishment for a second offense. The bill also amends existing law addressing weapons on school grounds by creating tiered punishments for possessing weapons on school property and gives police the authority to arrest without a warrant in order to quickly diffuse a situation on school property.”

The provisions of Patrick’s legislation that might affect some current legal gun owners include reducing “access to high-powered rounds of ammunition. It better tracks weapon sales by (1) requiring dealers at organized gun shows to connect to the Massachusetts Instant Record Check System (MIRCS) when conducting a sale of a firearm; and (2) requiring private sales of firearms to occur at the business of a licensed dealer so that the sale can be tracked electronically. It limits gun buyers to one firearm purchase per month and prevents the furnishing of a machine gun to any person under 21 years of age.”

The focus of much the testimony seen in the first two hours of the hearing focused on illegal gun use and crime.

Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastrioanni said, “It’s a social issue.”

He added, “It’s a complete reduction in the respect for life ... there is a sense of hopelessness and utter despair in high crime areas.”

He stressed that crimes involving guns is not a problem stemming from legal gun owners. Mastrioanni described how young men routinely bring guns to a house party.

“This puts law enforcement at an amazingly disadvantage,” he said.

The district attorney believes that developing a strong relationship within communities between residents and law enforcement is part of the answer.

Incarceration itself does not “stem the tide of gun violence,” he said. “Prison doesn’t deter people from carrying a gun.”

Because of the differences in laws governing gun sales from state to state, Mastrioanni said guns find their way to the Commonwealth and become “currency.”

State Sen. Gale Candaras, listening to the testimony, said, “Banning guns wouldn’t solve the problem. We must find a way to keep guns out of the hands of young people [who] are unstable and have mental health issues.”

She added no one in the Legislature would do anything to harm the status of Smith & Wesson.

“These are exactly the type of jobs that we trying to bring back to western Massachusetts,” she added.

There was a large contingent of Smith & Wesson employees in the 500-seat auditorium class in white shirts. James Debney, the president and CEO of the company, received a standing ovation from the employees and told committee members the company was committed to safety.

Debney said the company has doubled the number of people it employs since 2007. The current payroll is more than $77 million annually, he added.

He said that Smith & Wesson wants to be part of the solution in curbing gun violence and he said the company would continue taking steps that include sponsoring firearms safety programs, by selling to federally licensed firearms dealers, by including a gun lock and safety instruction manual with each gun and by donating gunlocks to organizations.

Debney urged the legislators to “focus their efforts on four key areas.” He asked that Massachusetts report mental health concerns to NICS; continue efforts to improve school safety; standardize across the state the procedure and criteria for licenses to carry a firearm; and “fix NICS,” as Massachusetts ranks 49th out of 50 states for reporting to the national background check system.