Mass. has blind spot when it comes to assault weapons

State laws ban use of assault weapons, but not their manufacture and export

WHAT IS OUR moral responsibility as a Commonwealth for preventing the predictable loss of life from products manufactured in Massachusetts? Four state legislators — Democratic Reps. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, Frank Moran of Lawrence, and Bud Williams of Springfield and Democratic Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton — are pressing that question with proposed legislation.  

They want Massachusetts to ban manufacture of assault weapons that are banned for sale in the Commonwealth. The bill focuses on the AR-15, an anti-personnel rifle that is manufactured in Massachusetts (among other states) but outlawed for sale here. The four made their announcement April 20, alongside loved ones of children and adults killed in mass murders. Stop Handgun Violence, the group that has long advocated for sensible gun regulation in the Bay State, joined in.  

The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates there are now about 16 million AR-15s or similar models in the hands of American civilians. The major manufacturer in Massachusetts is Springfield’s Smith & Wesson.  

The bill’s supporters have made an irrefutable moral case for a manufacturing ban on machines whose sole purpose is the killing of human beings. Patricia and Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, was killed in the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, supported the measure via video conference. Joaquin Oliver was 17 years-old when the Parkland murderer used an AR-15 to shoot down him and 16 more members of his school community. “I feel that we’re more concerned about the final destiny of the manufacturer and not the final destiny of our kids,” Manuel Oliver said. 

The bill, with no evident support from legislative leadership, is unlikely to succeed this year. But supporters are right to focus our attention on a big blind spot in our collective self-perception on the question of guns and violence. The manufacture of guns, accessories, and ammunition is a huge business in Western Massachusetts. Bloomberg News reported in 2018 that, according to the latest federal figures, Massachusetts accounted for a quarter of the 11.9 million guns manufactured each year in the US, more than any other state. Also in 2018, Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, called weapons manufacturing the backbone of his region’s commerce, and an industry that is growing across the board.”   

The AR-15, the semi-automatic assault rifle that is used in most mass murders and is the focus of the proposed manufacturing ban, was developed largely by Colt in Hartford. It became the M-16 when adopted by the US military in the 1960s. Colt suspended manufacture of the weapons 18 months ago. The financial website Priceonomics reported in 2018 that there were at least 23 different models of AR-15 available for civilian purchase in the US.   

Massachusetts and much of New England have been profiting from the beginning from America’s mystical attachment to firearms and violence. Boston bookseller, Revolutionary War hero, and first US Secretary of War Henry Knox established the Springfield Armory. According to the New England Historical Society, “From 1796 to 1968, the Springfield Armory served as the US Army’s main design and production workshop for small arms. In the process, it became the hub of Springfield’s industrial economy and launched dozens of weapons makers and related businesses in the Connecticut Valley. Companies like ColtRemington and Smith & Wesson gave the region the nickname ‘Gun Valley.’” 

At least 38 companies manufacture guns, gun parts, and ammunition in five New England states (Rhode Island is the exception). Gun Valley is home to the firearms synonymous with manifest destiny realized at gunpoint: the Remington, the Winchester, Smith & Wesson, and Colt.  It’s a durable industry. How many other 18th century manufacturing clusters thrive today in the region? Yet perhaps it’s time to write the final chapter in that long saga.  

Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was killed in the mass shooting in 2012 Aurora, Colorado, supports the proposed legislation and is frustrated that even with the deaths of so many thousands of innocents, gun violence victims and their families have been unable to convince manufacturers to stop producing military-style weapons. She calls out a kind of Massachusetts moral hazard in this marketplaceWe get the jobs and revenue while others pay the costs.   

Massachusetts has some of the nation’s most effective regulations on firearms carrying and possession. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year that Massachusetts has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the US. By any measure — from suicide with firearms, accidents, and gun crime to police use of deadly force — we are the safest region in the country in terms of firearm violence. At the same time, we are big beneficiaries of the small arms trade.  

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“These weapons are made in your state, but they can’t be sold in your state, so in effect, Massachusetts is exporting bloodshed to the rest of the country,” Phillips said via live video, alongside the Massachusetts lawmakers sponsoring the bill to ban the manufacture of assault weapons in the state. “There are no reasons other than the pleas of Americans for them to do anything to stop the carnage,” she said of the gun makers. “Legislation is the only way.” 

Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and co-principal of Public Safety Leadership. He has taught policing courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.