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MA Lawmakers Optimistic For Gun Legislation In 2014

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One year after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Massachusetts has not joined neighboring New York and Connecticut in passing gun control legislation.

During this year’s legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers filed more than 60 pieces of gun-related legislation. Over the past year, the state’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held five formal hearings and more than 30 community forums on gun control. Democratic Representative Harold Naughton of Clinton, who is running for Attorney General, co-chairs the committee.

“As you see with the New York legislation it’s under some scrutiny and also potentially under litigation for a long period to come,” Naughton said. “I think the deliberate approach is more appropriate. I have never been one to believe in legislation by headline, legislation done at the height of emotion when your blood pressure is still 40 points above where it should be. It should be done in the cold light of day.”

Massachusetts already has what many people including Naughton consider to be some of the strictest gun laws in the country. But state lawmakers have not followed their counterparts in New York and Connecticut in passing gun control legislation this year. When asked if there is harm in not getting legislation passed, Naughton had this to say.

“Absolutely, but that’s not the case here because in January we will have a piece of legislation proposed for debate by the House and the Senate,” he said. “In January, into February and the early part of the year we will be producing some substantive legislation. Now is the time to act.”

Naughton anticipates the legislation’s primary focus will include tougher sentences for those using illegal firearms in connection with a crime, reworking the state’s clumsy licensing process while creating a system of universal background checks at every point of sale, and ensuring school safety without making the buildings armed fortresses. He says the other major component will address mental health using information from a gun violence task force appointed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo in March.

“While only 2 percent of gun violence in our society can be attributed to people with mental health issues, 60 percent of gun deaths in our society are suicides,” Naughton explained. “It’s time that we have an adult conversation about the issues of mental health. About the fact that we should make mental health care as accessible as care for a broken arm, cancer or any other physical ailment a person would have. I think we’ll be moving that discussion forward. This bill won’t be the be all and end all, but it will be a continuous of that discussion on how we treat issues of mental health. The goal being to remove the stigma.”

The task force held its final hearing in mid-December and hopes to issue a report in the coming weeks. Naughton is joined by fellow Democrat Warren Tolman in the race for state attorney general. Current AG Martha Coakley is a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful with Governor Deval Patrick not seeking reelection in 2014. Tolman, a former state lawmaker who ran for governor in 2002, recently released a plan that would establish fingerprint recognition technology on all new guns sold in the commonwealth.

“The gun trigger would have a fingerprint recognizing capability where it recognize your fingerprint and allow you to pull the trigger, but if it’s your gun and I tried to pull the trigger it’s not going to let it happen,” Tolman said. “The gun manufacturers have this capability today.”

Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox filed a bill that would set up voluntary firearm turn-in programs. He is optimistic about the state’s deliberate and even-handed approach and says new ideas like Tolman’s could be incorporated into potential legislation.

“At the end of the day, if we’ve done nothing, shame on us,” Pignatelli said. “I think we’ve got to do something. There’s only so long you can study things and gather input before we have to do something. I hope that we do something very soon after the new year begins.”

Not all of the bills filed this session would restrict access to guns. One would repeal the state’s ban on assault weapons while another would prohibit the confiscation of any lawfully possessed firearm during a state of emergency.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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