Naughton’s gun tour

Rep. tries to craft some sort of consensus

The school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, sparked an intense national debate about gun control, but the issue soon faded in the face of a split Congress. The debate has also disappeared from the front pages in Massachusetts, but it hasn’t gone away. Rep. Harold Naughton, a Democrat from Clinton and the House chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, has been quietly working over the last few months to reignite the conversation about guns. Naughton recently completed a listening tour on which he spoke with a wide variety of Massachusetts residents, everyone from mothers who lost children to street violence to employees at the Smith and Wesson gun manufacturing facility in Springfield. Naughton on Wednesday was at Cape Cod Community College, hosting the first of five planned hearings on guns. The other hearings will be held at Assumption College in Worcester, American International College in Springfield, an as-yet-unidentified North Shore location, and the State House. Naughton recently spoke with CommonWealth’s Adam Sennott about his efforts. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

COMMONWEALTH: What do you hope to accomplish with these hearings?

REP. HAROLD NAUGHTON: A thoughtful, deliberate, comprehensive piece of legislation that protects the public safety while not impeding on civil rights. Come September, if I can take the floor of the House and say, “That’s what this is,” well, I guess I’ll have done my job. And I think we can do that, but it’s not going to be easy getting there.

CW: What’s going to be difficult about it?

NAUGHTON: This is the largest single subject matter piece of legislation I’ve ever filed, probably in my almost 20 years here. The legislation could potentially affect everything from firearm ownership to licensing to background checks to looking at mental health to looking at economic implications…As far as firearm ownership is concerned; we’ve got some pretty strong laws on the books in the Commonwealth as it is, probably among the strongest in the country. Most of the crimes that are committed out there that are committed with guns and handguns are with illegally owned firearms, so people who don’t have licenses. So as far as affecting the laws that currently exist as far as ownership, I don’t know how much we do. I mean we certainly don’t want to impede on anybody’s Second Amendment rights. By the end of this, my goal is that there not be one person in the Commonwealth who can say that they haven’t had some input.

CW: Have you been surprised by anything you’ve heard during these listening tours?

NAUGHTON: There was one group of mothers in inner-city Worcester, all of whom had lost their sons to street violence. They were all incredibly strong individuals, incredibly strong women who were willing to come to the table and talk about it to try to prevent it from happening to someone else’s [child]. But it’s funny. Each one of them said you can pass all the gun laws you want, it’s not going to bring our kids back. What’s going on in the streets as far as street violence is concerned, those people, the people dealing drugs or doing other illegal things, the fact that their weapon is unlicensed is the least of their issues. And the women were very cognizant of that and they admitted that, and they said, “Until you can do something about reducing gun trafficking, very little success will be made.” I want Massachusetts to be a leader, as it has been on so many issues, but it’s going to be affected by the states around us and what’s done on a national basis. But I don’t think that can slow us down either. I think we need to be prepared to lead. Conversations with those women on one hand can make you desolate, but also give you hope that, if we lead here, maybe others will follow.

CW: What if other states don’t follow? Can these 65 pieces of legislation, or even the comprehensive bill you will be proposing in September, still be effective?

NAUGHTON: I’m not saying this to be flippant, but if it saves one life it has been pretty effective for that person.

CW: What type of action can we expect to see in the Legislature surrounding gun control in the coming months?

NAUGHTON: That’s what the hearings are all about, brother. I think we’re going to want to look at mental health, school safety, background checks, licenses to carry, and information sharing. If we can do something in those four subject-area matters, I think we’ll come out with a thoughtful, well-reasoned piece of legislation that assures public safety while not trampling on Second Amendment rights. 

CW: Do you own a gun?

NAUGHTON: I do not.

CW: How do tragedies like Newtown affect you?

NAUGHTON: My kids are 15, 13, 13, and 10.  It wasn’t that long ago that they were babies like those kids. It wasn’t that long ago that they were all in school rooms like that. They still are. What the bombings bring home is that there are dangers here, and that if you’re in a position of responsibility where you can potentially do something to prevent it in the future, then you’re called upon to do that.

CW: Has gun violence ever hit close to home for you?

NAUGHTON: Yea, my dad always worked at least two jobs when we were kids, and he worked at a liquor store on Saturday nights. He got robbed…I was probably 10 or 12. He thought he was going to die. Two guys came in and took the cash from the cash register and a couple of bottles of booze; they walked him into the back room and he thought they were going to plug him. They just left him there and took off, thank God.

CW: What do you think of the NRA and the Gun Owners Action League?

NAUGHTON: I have respect for anyone who wants to get involved in the public debate these days. It’s a difficult arena, whether you’re talking about firearms, or sequestration and the budget in Washington, or defense, Syria. Anyone D or R who gets involved in the public debate these days has my respect because of how really, really difficult an environment it is. So they have their place in the world and their right to articulate what they feel is the best interest to their members, as do many other groups.

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CW: With gun reform being such a controversial issue, how difficult do you think it will be to bridge the gaps between those who support gun reform and those who are against it?

NAUGHTON: Well, there are going to be people out there who are just upset that we’re even having hearings, that we’re even addressing the issue. And there’s nothing I can do about those people. That’s the process, that’s the process back to the founding of the Commonwealth. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing good ever came of anything easy.