Healey faces backlash on gun-control measures

Associated PressMassachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey unilaterally expanded the state's 30-year ban on assault weapons in July to include "copycat" weapons that look like or can be modified to mimic assault weapons. The decision set off a firestorm from pro-gun forces in the state.

BOSTON — Attorney General Maura Healey has made reducing gun violence a top issue since taking office, earning praise from gun-control advocates but scorn — not to mention legal challenges — from gun-rights groups.

Healey unilaterally expanded the state's 30-year ban on assault weapons in July to include "copycat" weapons that look like or can be modified to mimic assault weapons. More than 10,000 such weapons were sold in the state last year, she said.

Healey also has used her powers under the state’s consumer protection law to demand that gun makers, specifically Remington and Glock, turn over documents related to complaints about safety, including accidental discharges, lawsuits and legal settlements.

"We have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that combat-style weapons are off our streets and out of the hands of those who would use them to kill innocent people," said Healey, a Democrat, in an interview. "The gun makers were finding a way around the ban. We put a stop to that."

Not surprisingly, gun rights advocates are pushing back, with some calling Healey's actions an "abuse of power."

"She has essentially made tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens felons in waiting," said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association. "She's abusing the powers of her office for political gain."

Wallace said the new rules have caused confusion among gun owners, many of whom are worried about being prosecuted. A list of banned rifle features and modifications released by Healey's office includes parts that are interchangeable with banned weapons, such as trigger assemblies and magazine ports.

"Nobody really knows how to follow these rules," he said. "Gun owners feel like they're being treated like criminals."

A LOOK AT LAWSUITS

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun lobbying group, filed a lawsuit over the new rules in federal court. The National Rifle Association is also expected to challenge Healey's order, either by signing onto the existing case or filing a separate lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Remington and Glock recently sued in Suffolk County Superior Court to block Healey's demand for safety-related documents.

Healey defends the actions, saying the assault weapons ban gives her office the authority to impose new regulations to enforce the law.

She said Congress has "given into the gun lobby" by prohibiting gun manufacturers from being prosecuted for deaths related to safety defects and homicides, and for blocking funding for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the effects of gun violence.

"Gun manufacturers are the only maker of a consumer product that have immunity from liability," she said. "That's really unfortunate."

Massachusetts has long been known for tough gun restrictions, but gun rights advocates say tougher rules don’t reduce gun violence. Murders committed with firearms have risen continuously since major gun control rules took effect — from 65 in Massachusetts in 1998 to 81 in 2015, according to the FBI.

Gun rights advocates point out that the FBI statistics show most gun-related homicides are committed with handguns, not the kind of weapons targeted by Healey.

"If she really wants to crack down on gun violence, she should be going after the illegal gun trade, not law-abiding citizens," said Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, one of 80 legislators who signed a letter blasting her actions.

Mirra said Republicans are discussing legislation to blunt the impact of the rules.

Still, Healey cites recent mass-shootings around the country and said expanding the definition of assault weapons makes citizens safer.

"I view this as a public health issue," she said. "These guns are the weapon of choice for mass shooters, and we need to do everything we can to prevent the kinds of tragedies here that have occurred in places like Orlando, Newtown and Aurora."

Since extending the ban, she said, there has been a "dramatic decline" in assault weapon sales by gun dealers.

Healey said her office hasn't prosecuted any gun owners for possessing modified assault rifles, and it doesn't intend to do so.

"We've been clear from the beginning that weren't going to be taking guns away from people," she said.

HEALEY: THE LAW IS THE LAW

In 2014, lawmakers passed a gun-control bill that gives police chiefs the right to go to court to deny firearms identification cards to buy rifles or shotguns to people whom they feel are unsuitable.

It allows real-time background checks for private gun sales, stiffens penalties for some gun-based crimes, and calls on State Police to create a firearms trafficking unit.

But the law, signed by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, didn't change the state's assault weapons ban.

Gun control groups have praised Healey's efforts to widen the ban, saying gun makers and merchants have been skirting the law for years.

"The attorney general clearly has the authority to enforce the assault weapons ban, and the fact that so many gun dealers were selling copycat weapons flew in the face of that law," said Sheila Decter, a member of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

Healey, who oversaw more than 250 lawyers in the office's civil rights division before she was elected attorney general, created friction with Gov. Charlie Baker by expanding the assault weapons ban. The Republican governor took office with Healey in 2015.

Baker, who supports the ban, sent a letter to Healey in July requesting that her office clarify its unilateral action on "copy-cat" weapons and what it meant for "responsible gun owners" who purchased the weapons legally.

"Keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who wish to do others harm is a priority we share," Baker wrote. "At the same time, protecting from prosecution responsible gun owners who followed the rules in the past and ensuring there is clarity when it comes to enforcing gun control measures such as the assault weapons ban are essential to fair application of the law."

Healey said the new rules don't need further clarification. She expects to prevail in the legal challenges.

"If the gun lobby wants to change the law, they can go to the Legislature," she said. "But the law is the law, and it's my job to enforce it."

Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Reach him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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