By Christian M. Wade
---- — BOSTON — Background checks on private gun sales, new rules for licensing rifles and penalties for gun dealers who don’t report missing firearms are among the highlights of a sweeping gun control bill unveiled by House Democrats.
“It’s not enough to be one of the safest states in the nation, we must enact laws that make our communities the safest in the world,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said during a press conference yesterday. “This bill will make serious and lasting change.”
The proposal requires criminal background checks for all private firearms sales - including those made at gun shows. Federal law only requires checks for guns sold through licensed firearms dealers.
It calls for tougher licensing rules and would do away with the state’s Class B firearms license, which allows people to carry non-concealed, non-high capacity weapons. If approved by the Legislature before its session ends July 31, the bill would implement new rules for applying for a state firearm identification card, which is easier to obtain than a permit to carry concealed weapons.
Gun rights advocates said they are disappointed, especially by a provision that gives local police more discretion in issuing firearms licenses.
“That is one of the most widely abused laws and has resulted in numerous court cases across the state,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association. “To expand that law is incomprehensibly foolish.”
Local police currently decide whether someone who applies for a gun license is “suitable” to own a firearm. There are no standards for who gets a firearm identification card to carry rifles, shotguns and ammunition.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Jack McDevitt, associate dean for research for the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University, whose task force proposed many of the changes. “If a person is turned down for a handgun license, they can just turn around and get a long gun.”
The proposal makes concessions to gun owners, said McDevitt, such as eliminating a 90-day period for renewing permits that gun advocates say has created a massive backlog.
The state also would be required to submit information about those disqualified from owning a gun because of mental illness or substance abuse problems to federal authorities. The state has been strongly criticized for not reporting that information now.
The bill stops short of making changes that were proposed by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, including limits on magazine capacity and restricting buyers to one firearm purchase per month.
Massachusetts has long been known for tough gun restrictions, but gun advocates say tougher rules don’t reduce gun violence. Murders committed with firearms have risen dramatically since the last major gun control rules took effect – from 65 in 1998 to 122 in 2011, according to the FBI.
Rep. Harold Naughton, Jr., D-Clinton, who chairs the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security and helped craft the legislation, said the proposal will reduce the number of illegal weapons and protect Second Amendment rights.
“The lawful gun owners in this state aren’t the problem, they’re hopefully part of the solution,” he said.
The reforms are proposed nearly a year and a half after 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at a school in Newtown, Conn., refueling a national debate over gun control. It comes days after a 22-year-old Santa Barbara man killed six people and injured 13 before killing himself.
Several parts of the legislation address school safety, such as requiring schools to develop plans to address the mental health needs of students and establish two-way communication devices with local police and fire officials.
“Ultimately gun violence must be addressed at the national level,” DeLeo said. “But in the absence of federal leadership, leaders in state government have to step up wherever we can.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @cmwade1969