Plan to seize guns hits opposition

JEN MELI/Staff file photo.  State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, seen here during a recent press conference in North Andover, said he questions the value of a bill before the Legislature that would allow police to seize the firearms of those deemed "extreme risks" before they have committed any crimes.

BOSTON — Gun owners could have their firearms taken under a controversial plan to keep weapons out of the hands of people with mental illness or who are deemed dangerous.

The legislation, if approved, would allow police, health care workers, family members and others to ask a judge to issue an “extreme risk protection order” allowing police to revoke the firearms license, for up to a year, of someone considered a danger to themselves or others.

Police could seize firearms belonging to that person, as well.

Gun control advocates say the measure, modeled on domestic violence protection orders that have been on the books for decades, will reduce gun violence and suicides that claim tens of thousands of lives each year.

Gun rights groups argue the law is unnecessary, especially since police chiefs already have the power to revoke a firearms license.

“We’ve seen too many tragedies where we wonder if we could have done something to prevent it,” said Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, one of 30 co-sponsors of the bill.

Tucker, a former Salem police chief, said supporters “aren’t looking to take away guns from law-abiding citizens” without due process by the court system.

“But there are times when we have to exercise extraordinary power,” he said.

Gun rights advocates say the move is government overreach that might actually jeopardize public safety.

“If we drag someone with mental health issues through the court process, you’re going to exacerbate those problems,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association.

Police chiefs have broad discretion over firearms licenses, he said, and may confiscate weapons from people with criminal records and a history of mental illness.

“This is actually a dangerous bill that really won’t make people safe,” he said.

Like domestic-violence protection orders, a petitioner under this plan would have to present evidence outlining threats someone has made to harm themselves or others.

If granted, an order would prevent its subject from buying firearms legally and could require the individual to surrender firearms they already own.

Penalties built into the proposal target those who might maliciously restrict another person’s access to firearms.

At least 20 states are considering similar proposals, according to gun control advocates and the National Conference of State Legislatures. California, Indiana, Washington and Connecticut have already enacted similar laws. California’s followed the mass-shooting near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014.

The measures have been backed by a coalition of advocates for domestic violence victims, law enforcement and gun control groups including Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit funded in part by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Christian Heyne, legislative director for the Washington D.C.-based Coalition To Stop Gun Violence, said family, health care providers and law-enforcement officers are often in the best position to know when someone poses a threat to themselves or others.

He said extreme-risk protection orders are valuable tools to give people time to get help, while protecting public safety.

“People who may harm themselves, harm those they love or harm first-responders coming to their aid should not have easy access to firearms,” he said.

Massachusetts is known for tough gun restrictions, but gun rights advocates say tougher rules don’t reduce gun violence.

In 2014, lawmakers gave police chiefs the right to go to court to deny firearms ID cards to buy rifles or shotguns to people whom they feel are unsuitable. That bill allowed real-time background checks for private gun sales and stiffened penalties for some gun-based crimes. It also called on State Police to create a firearms trafficking unit.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said he’s not convinced protections such as those outlined in the new bill are necessary.

“Police chiefs already have the authority to revoke or suspend a firearms license,” said Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. “Rather than restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens, maybe we should be looking at the issue of behavioral and mental health services.”

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