AG’s gun communications lacking

Healey gave conflicting accounts of who, when, and how dealers and others were notified

Two weeks after Attorney General Maura Healey announced her crackdown on assault weapons sales, there is still confusion over how and when she issued her directive, whether she did or should have consulted with legislative leaders, and how much notice dealers actually received for when the order took effect.

In addition, many dealers are still waiting to see if Healey’s office will bring criminal or civil sanctions against them for sales they made on the day she made her announcement because, for most, they never received a formal notice until later but heard or read about it in the media.

Healey’s directive said weapons that differ only in small, insignificant ways from banned assault weapons are also prohibited under the law.

“It is confusing,” says Don Hunt, owner of Hunter’s Trading Post in Weymouth, who continued to sell the copycats and duplicates up through midnight on the day of her announcement. “We didn’t get a notification in time. They indicated a letter was sent out. We didn’t get a letter until a week later and then it was not a [registered] one, just regular mail. We had the postal woman sign a sheet saying she delivered it on that date.”

Hunt, like many of the 350 dealers in the state, is facing potential charges because Healey said the effective enforcement of the new directive began on July 20, the day of her announcement. At her press conference that day, Healey, who had also written an op-ed outlining the new directive for the Boston Globe, said notices were sent out to all dealers the day before instructing them to cease sales. She did not indicate the notices were sent by standard US mail.

“Yesterday, we sent notices out to all 350 dealers in the state,” Healey said on July 20 when asked if a one-day warning was sufficient for dealers to be aware that a law they believed they were following for 18 years had a new interpretation. “Our office will still continue to work with dealers. We had conversations with gun dealers this morning. This is about working together. But this is effective immediately, which is why we provided them the notice yesterday.”

The law Healey is enforcing was passed in 1998 and specifically names several guns, such as AK-47s and AR-15s, as illegal and says “copies or duplicates” are also banned. Healey said her directive was merely enforcement of the statute the way it was intended. She said manufacturers had for years been making minor or cosmetic changes, such as a fixed stock or eliminating a flash suppressor in semi-automatic rifles, and declaring them “Massachusetts compliant.”

On the day of her announcement, gun dealers sold 2,251 rifles deemed illegal under her order as gun enthusiasts rushed to make purchases. Healey initially said only sales and ownership prior to the day of her announcement were exempt from sanctions but then changed that to also exempting those who bought weapons on July 20, though she kept the door open to taking action against dealers who sold illegal weapons that day and since.

A spokeswoman for Healey says while some buyers could be forgiven for being confused, she said dealers are held to a higher standard and should know the law.

“I don’t know for a fact if [the rush to buy] was caused by confusion among dealers,” says Cyndi Roy Gonzalez. “Our intention is not to go after those people who purchased those weapons on the day she made this announcement. Our focus is going to take action against dealers who continue to sell these illegal weapons. We’re reviewing those transactions [for July 20] as well as transactions following that date. We think that it’s pretty clear which guns are legal and which are not. Knowledgeable dealers for the most part know what is and what is not illegal.”

But Hunt, the Weymouth gun shop owner who has been in business for 25 years, says there is nothing clear about the directive.

“I don’t know what is compliant and what isn’t by reading this,” he says of the letter from Healey.

He says he asked the attorney general’s office for a list of banned guns but was told to call manufacturers. A similar request by CommonWealth found there is no list of banned guns.

“We don’t think it makes sense at this time to have a list,” says Roy Gonzalez.

Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners’ Action League, says it’s that kind of response that makes the order opaque and puts fear into both dealers and owners.

“For 20 years, the industry has been trying to seek clarification on those regulations,” says Wallace, who bought several of the guns on the day of Healey’s announcement. “She’s saying, ‘If you think your product meets our regulations, sell them. If you’re wrong, we’ll prosecute you.’ People are scared to sell anything. Hundreds of thousands of families who sold or own these guns are scared to death and rightfully so. There is no clarification.”

Wallace says Healey is sending out a mixed message by not having a detailed list. In her announcement, Healey said the problem stemmed from manufacturers wrongly interpreting the law and her intention was to end that. Now, says Wallace, that’s what she wants.

“I do think is kind of ironic that she says manufacturers took it upon themselves to interpret the law and now she’s telling us it’s up to you to interpret the law,” he says. “It’s clear as mud.”

The order created confusion not only for dealers and buyers but other elected officials as well. Gov. Charlie Baker, while acknowledging Healey has the power as attorney general to interpret and enforce the state laws, said her order was murky and needed clarification of both the types of guns that come under the directive and the effective date for a ban on sale of so-called copycat weapons.

At her press conference, when asked if she consulted with lawmakers to determine if her actions were in line with legislative intent, Healey indicated she had extensive discussions prior to her announcement.

“Certainly, we continue to speak with members of the Legislature,” she said, acknowledging two state representatives in the audience. “We spoke with the Senate President’s office, with the Speaker’s office… We continue to be in dialogue with them.”

But in an appearance this week on CommonWealth’s podcast, Senate President Stan Rosenberg said the only communication that his office received was notification the day before the press conference of the event and some of the details of the topic.

“No, no,” Rosenberg said, when asked if he was consulted on the AG’s directive. He acknowledged that Healey has the authority to interpret the law, but faulted the process that took place. “We found out the afternoon before. I think there needed to be more transparency to the public that she was working on it and there needed to be more consultation with the Legislature.”

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

But Roy Gonzalez, who dismissed the issue as a disagreement over “what is consultation, what is notification,” said Healey had no requirement to forewarn anyone – gun dealers, Baker, or the Legislature – about her actions.

“As a courtesy we provided dealers with notice that she intended to use her authority to enforce the statute,” she says. “We let [Rosenberg’s] office know prior to Wednesday, not that we’re under any obligation that we’re going to do that… By the authority invested in the attorney general, she has the power to look at the laws and interpret them.”