House passes gun bill as amendment to bond legislation
Move angers gun group, which was given no advance notification
THE MASSACHUSETTS House on Thursday quickly introduced and passed provisions tightening gun licensing standards in response to a recent US Supreme Court decision.
With just 10 days to go before the end of formal legislative sessions this year, House Speaker Ron Mariano announced Thursday morning that the House had reached an agreement with the Senate, in consultation with Attorney General Maura Healey, “to expedite legislation needed to come into compliance with the Bruen decision while proactively safeguarding existing components of our gun laws from future challenges.”
Mariano said House and Senate lawmakers agreed to deliver a “tailored proposal” to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by July 31.
The sudden action on guns, which was passed as an amendment to a bond bill Thursday evening, angered gun rights activists. Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners Action League, a gun rights lobbying group, said he “cannot even describe how angry we are” that gun owners were not consulted. “The very people that were affected by the Supreme Court decision and are going to be affected by whatever they do today, we didn’t even get the courtesy of a phone call to say hey what do you think about this?” he said.
The amendment passed by a vote of 122 to 33, with five Democrats joining all the House Republicans in voting no.
The Senate plans to take up a version of the bill next week, which will have to be reconciled with the House version before it goes to Baker.
“Senate leadership looks forward to continuing to work with House leadership and the Office of the Attorney General to ensure quick passage of legislation that will allow us to be in compliance with the Bruen decision while defending the Commonwealth’s gun laws, which are very effective at keeping our residents safe,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement.” We plan to review the House’s final proposal and act expeditiously to get a bill to Governor Baker by the end of this session, and continue our efforts to strengthen our effective gun laws next session.”
The US Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen struck down a New York law that required someone who wanted a license to carry a concealed weapon to prove they had “proper cause” for needing a concealed weapon. The decision had ramifications for similarly crafted laws in other states, including Massachusetts.
After the ruling, Healey issued guidance saying that licensing authorities could no longer enforce a provision of Massachusetts law that allowed a gun license to be restricted or denied if an applicant lacked a sufficiently good reason to fear injury to person or property.
Healey said police chiefs would continue to have discretion to decide if a license applicant is “unsuitable” to obtain a gun license, although some experts suggested the Bruen ruling would make this provision ripe for a court challenge.
Healey spokesperson Chloe Gotsis said the attorney general’s office will continue to work with lawmakers. “We look forward to continuing to work with them next session to further strengthen our gun laws and protect public safety,” she said.
The provisions considered Thursday were introduced as an amendment, sponsored by Day, to an information technology bond bill for the judiciary. Day called it a “tightening up” of the “safety net” that was loosened by the Bruen decision. “We’ll be tightening up, correcting some of the lapses we had in that law so that the individual who’s a prohibited person from obtaining a license to carry will be more clearly defined,” he said.
The amendment eliminates the now-unenforceable language requiring someone to show “good reason” to obtain a gun license, and generally removes language that gives discretion to licensing authorities in favor of more concrete standards.
It adds two categories of people to those who are prohibited from getting a gun license: someone subject to a harassment prevention order, and someone who poses a risk of danger to themselves or others by possessing a firearm.
Rather than giving police chiefs discretion to determine who is “unsuitable” for a gun license, as is the law today, it sets a standard to require “reliable, articulable, and credible information that the applicant has exhibited or engaged in behavior suggesting that, if issued a license, they may create a risk to public safety or a risk of danger to their self or others.”
It also reduces the amount of time a gun license is good for from six to three years, ensuring more frequent reviews, and it codifies a requirement for an in-person interview with a licensing authority before someone can obtain a gun license.
Day said the licensing system currently works and makes Massachusetts one of the safest states in the country for gun violence. That’s why he said he wanted to better define the “suitability” standard rather than eliminate it. “People have freedom to apply for firearms,” Day said. “We want to make sure that our licensing authorities are considering who should actually get them, who’s safe and who’s not, who’s a responsible gun owner and who’s not.”
On the House floor, Day said, “Our system works, and we trust our local law enforcement professionals, those who know us best, to implement that system. This is a necessary step to ensure licensing authorities can continue to do that work.”
Wallace said he believes keeping the suitability standard is unconstitutional, even with the new language, because there is no objective standard for determining if someone poses a threat. “It’s purely subjective, it will not pass constitutional muster,” Wallace said.
Wallace also worried about cutting the license term in half, since that doubles the licensing fee and will burden municipalities that already have backlogs for processing license renewals. He also said there is no need for an in-person interview now that the courts have determined there cannot be subjectivity in licensing.
“Gun owners are not going to be happy this was done in secret and stuffed into a bond bill,” Wallace said.House Republicans tried unsuccessful procedural maneuvers to delay the vote.
Rep. Paul Frost, an Auburn Republican, said during debate that he is hearing opposition from police chiefs who say requiring an interview every three years, rather than giving an option for an interview every six years, “is going to be an administrative nightmare.” He compared the doubling of the fee to implementing a “poll tax,” since both voting and gun ownership are a constitutional right.