Bill would overturn local gun ordinances

NRA-backed bill would establish primacy of 2d Amendment

THE LEGISLATURE’S PUBLIC SAFETY COMMITTEE will hear public testimony on firearms bills on Wednesday. In roughly equal numbers, the 68 bills before the Committee would either tighten gun control in the state or loosen it.

One of the bills proposing to loosen gun control, House 2122, would prohibit cities and towns from enacting or enforcing “any law, ordinance or regulation concerning the lawful ownership, use, possession, transfer, purchase, receipt or transportation of weapons.”

If the bill were to become law, it would immediately invalidate all municipal laws restricting who may fire a gun and under what circumstances. In its 1986 decision establishing that municipalities may impose such restrictions, the Supreme Judicial Court noted they were in effect in 103 cities and towns. The bill would also overturn other gun-related ordinances, such as the ones prohibiting the possession of guns on school property that are in effect in Boston and Taunton, and the ones prohibiting pawnbrokers from accepting guns as collateral that are in effect in Lawrence, Fall River, and Fitchburg.

Advocates of the bill describe it as merely a clarification of existing law that will help to avoid any confusion about the primacy of the Second Amendment. According to the Gun Owners’ Action League, the bill “creates a new section of law that provides a presumption that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual civil right…This will avoid a potential patchwork of laws across the Commonwealth that causes confusion.”

Similarly, Rep. David Robertson, the bill’s chief sponsor, suggested that its purpose was to “simplify” the law, both for civilians and for law enforcement.

But from a national perspective, the bill has considerably more significance. The success of the National Rifle Association in thwarting gun control nationally is largely the result of a campaign it began in the 1980s to enact state statutes preempting any local firearms restrictions. After losing a challenge to a gun control ordinance in Morton Grove, Illinois, in 1982, the NRA launched a drive to pass preemption statutes in all 50 states. As the organization stated in a 1986 issue brief:

The NRA continues to recognize preemption as the major legislative safeguard to prevent local anti-gun action and to guarantee all citizens their right to own and use firearms for legitimate purposes. For this reason, enacting firearm preemption in those states without this legislative safeguard remains the top legislative priority.

Today, statutes in 43 states preempt all, or substantially all, local ordinances on the topic of gun regulation. Massachusetts is one of only seven states that does not; the others are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York. Legislation has also been filed in Florida to repeal that state’s preemption statute, in effect since 1987.

Gun control advocates, including the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, contend that states that allow for local control can respond more effectively to the threat of gun violence by taking into account important local variations (such as the differences between urban and rural communities) that make different approaches to preventing gun violence appropriate in different areas.

Of the seven sponsors of House 2122, six represent districts containing one or more communities with some form of local gun control in effect today.  The seven sponsors include Reps. Donald Berthiaume Jr. of Spencer, Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton, Timothy Whelan of Brewster, and Bradley Jones Jr. of North Reading, all Republicans. The other three sponsors – Reps. David Robertson of Tewksbury, Russell Holmes of Boston, and Sen. Michael Brady of Brockton – are Democrats. [Editor’s Note: Informed about the bill, Rep. Holmes said him being listed as a sponsor has to be a mistake.] Perhaps at Wednesday’s hearing the sponsors will have some testimony to offer about the wishes of their constituents.

Margaret Monsell, a former assistant attorney general and former general counsel to the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means, is an attorney practicing in the Boston area.