Future of guns discussed

Handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at a trade show.

BOSTON — Police seized weapons and ammunition last year belonging to six people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others under the state's new "red flag" law, according to newly released data.

The law, passed in the wake of school shootings and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in July, allows police, friends or relatives of a legal gun owner to seek a so-called "extreme risk protection order" if they believe that person poses a risk to themselves or others. The order gives police authority to temporarily confiscate that person's firearms.

Data released by the state's Trial Court shows the law, which went into effect in mid-August, has been used to confiscate firearms belonging to at least six people.

Most were white men but other details -- such as names, addresses, the type and amount of weapons and ammunition seized, and the circumstances -- were not disclosed. Cases were handled by local courts in Milford, Hingham, Quincy, Holyoke, Ayer and Brockton.

Supporters of the red-flag law say the data show people are taking advantage of it.

"This law gives family members and friends a more direct way to protect loved ones who are at risk or hurting themselves or others," said Cindy Rowe, co-founder of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. "It is something that was missing from our gun laws and makes the state a safer place."

Gun rights advocates say the law lacks due process and threatens Second Amendment rights.

"This is a gun confiscation law, period," said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association. "It allows police to drag someone into court, take away their legally purchased firearms and let them go without access to mental health services. How is that going to help anyone?"

Wallace pointed out that many requests for extreme risk protection orders were emergency orders, meaning police likely confiscated the weapons before the owner appeared before a judge.

"This is one of the things we were concerned about," he said. "They're taking peoples' firearms away before they get a chance to have their day in court."

The law was passed in the wake of the Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and while opponents warned it infringes on run rights, supporters said it's needed to safeguard lives.

The measure lets a relative or someone else with close ties to a legal gun owner petition a court for a 12-month extreme risk protection order if the individual was exhibiting dangerous or unstable behavior.

Like domestic violence protection orders, petitioners under the "red flag" law must present evidence that someone intends to harm themselves or others. Individuals subject to an order can appeal the decision. The law also includes penalties of $2,500 to $5,000, and up to 2 1⁄2 years in jail, for seeking an order based on false information or in order to harass a gun owner.

The Trial Court's data show that none of the requests filed to date have been determined to be fraudulent.

Police chiefs have discretion to revoke gun licenses, but gun control advocates say this law is important because it gives family members and friends a more direct route to seek help for someone.

Regulations vary widely but at least a dozen states and Washington D.C. have red-flag laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Legislatures in at least 20 states including New Hampshire are considering similar laws, according to the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence.

Gun control advocates in Massachusetts are planning a public outreach initiative in coming months to let people know about the law and how they can use it.

"As awareness of this law continues to spread, we expect more people will come to understand its purpose and use it," said John Rosenthal, executive director of the group Stop Handgun Violence. "But the fact that people are already using it is a great sign. It means that lives have potentially been saved."

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

 

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