Frenzy over firearms

Assault weapons and mental health remain major issues at legislative gun hearing

Gun lobbyists and gun control activists butted heads at a legislative committee public hearing in Worcester but were able to find some common ground over the importance of mental health records to background checks.

Proponents from both sides emphasized to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security that Massachusetts is one of only seven states failing to submit its mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks database.

Angus McQuilken, of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said mental health background checks are especially critical in preventing suicides, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of U.S. firearms deaths.

“Records from public hospitals are available to law enforcement for background checks, but records from private hospitals are not,” McQuilken told CommonWealth during the hearing. “State law currently treats those records as being confidential, even for purposes of background checks … We are required under federal law to share that data with NICS, and we’re not doing that,” he said, adding that states like Virginia have fixed their system to ensure compliance with the NICS. “If they can do it, we can do it.”

More than one of the proposed bills, including those submitted by Gov. Deval Patrick and Rep. David Linksy, a Democrat from Natick, would reconcile that. Patrick’s bill also includes $5 million for the Department of Mental Health, including a $1 million mental health training and consultation program for school systems.

Jake McGuigan, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn., said his group submitted a Freedom of Information request and found that Massachusetts was one of the worst offenders, with just one mental health record in the database. As a result, the firearms industry has actively advocated for changes through the FixNICS campaign.

The hearing yesterday at Assumption College, presided over by committee co-chairs Rep. Harold Naughton, a Democrat from Clinton, and Sen. James Timilty, a Democrat from Walpole, was the second of five scheduled around the state seeking input on nearly 60 bills the committee is looking to meld into a single piece of legislation by September.

The proposed measures come in the wake of the massacre of 20 children and seven teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown back in December. Congress failed to pass a comprehensive law in the shooting’s aftermath; however, states have passed some 86 laws regarding guns in the six months since the shooting, including in New York and Connecticut.

According to Rep. George Peterson, a Republican from Worcester who has authored 18 pieces of new firearms legislation before the committee, gun violence in the state has risen more than 200 percent since 1998, when the state’s current gun legislation was passed. Despite Massachusetts being known for having the toughest gun laws, “currently, the system that we have has been a terrible failure,” Peterson told the committee. “That’s a tragedy we need to fix.” Peterson admitted that while most agree about the necessity of reducing gun violence, many “don’t always agree how to get there.”

Meet the Author
Restrictions for assault weapons such as semiautomatics raised contention in a room split between workers representing Worcester-based Kahr Arms factory all wearing black baseball caps and gun control advocates sporting colorful “Stop Gun Violence” stickers. The Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, an umbrella organization formed after the Newtown shootings, pressed the committee to consider stronger prohibitions on “military-style assault weapons,” and “high capacity ammunition magazines.”

McGuigan argued against any assault weapons ban, citing a survey of 15,000 law enforcement officials, 92 percent of whom believed the ban would have no effect, or a negative effect, on violent crime reduction. “Semiautomatics are among the most popular hunting rifles, shotguns and target pistols,” McGuigan told the committee. “Law-abiding citizens who have every right to purchase and own firearms are the ones who are suffering by eliminating aspects of their activities with this type of law.”

Despite some consensus on mental health, dozens of other provisions – from licensing issues and penalties to tax incentives and establishing a gun violations registry – could make the committee’s job even tougher in its final months. The remaining gun legislation hearings are set for July 23 on the North Shore; Aug. 2 at American International College in Springfield; and an undecided September date at the State House.