The Senate on Thursday night approved a sweeping overhaul of state firearms laws, setting up talks with the House that could lead to a major new law later this spring or summer.
The Senate bill seeks to rein in untraceable ghost guns, bans carrying firearms in government administrative buildings, gives firearm licensing authorities access to some of an applicant’s mental health hospitalization history, and expands the list of people who can petition the court to take away someone’s guns if they are deemed dangerous. It passed the Senate on a 37-3 vote shortly after 8 p.m.
“Although proud that Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the nation, the members of this body are concerned by every incident of gun violence, every firearm suicide, and every accidental gun injury that occurs in the commonwealth,” said Sen. Cindy Creem of Newton, the main author of the bill.
The package filed by Majority Leader Creem hit the Senate floor at 12:30 p.m. Thursday and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr wasted no time pointing out some of the issues that Republicans see with the bill, including that it did not get its own public hearing.
Creem’s proposal represents the Senate’s long-anticipated response to the bill that cleared the House last fall.
Tarr argued that lawmakers were headed down “a very dangerous path” by not holding a public hearing on the Creem proposal, which was assembled following many private meetings. Creem said the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a hearing on other gun bills last year, giving people interested in the topic an opportunity to be heard.
Creem said the principles underlying the bill were “concern for the safety of our residents, respect for the Second Amendment, and a focus on the root cause of gun crime and gun accidents, and a commitment to equity underlies each of the policies included in this comprehensive bill.”
She added that her proposal is supported by both gun safety advocates and law enforcement.
The Massachusetts’ arm of the National Rifle Association called the bill “punitive” and didn’t support it or any of the 79 amendments senators filed, claiming the bill was “so convoluted that there is no way it can be fixed with amendments.”
Creem said she consulted with experts “who specialize in Second Amendment-related issues, including the attorney general’s office,” and was confident that the bill meets constitutional muster.
The Senate bill targets ghost guns — untraceable firearms that can be bought online in parts and assembled at home — by requiring the serialization of gun frames and receivers and classifying those individual parts as firearms, and explicitly prohibiting the use of 3D printers to manufacture or assemble firearms without a license.
The bill would also codify the state’s ban on assault weapons, prohibit devices that convert semi-automatic firearms into fully automatic weapons, ensure gun dealers are inspected annually, and allow health care professionals to ask a court to temporarily remove someone’s firearms if they are deemed dangerous.
Tarr highlighted an amendment (#63 filed by Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth and supported by the entire minority caucus) that he said included the topics that Republicans “think can be the subject of near unanimous, if not unanimous, consensus in this chamber.” He said the Republican caucus is also concerned with ghost guns, Glock switches, data collection, and more.
“And while we may come to this discussion with some variations on how we would achieve those common goals, the fact remains that we share a similar commitment. And I want to dispel any notion that might be out there that we do not share that commitment,” Tarr said. “It’s our belief that if we move forward with that package, that we would have the best chance of achieving success on a number of the subjects that I just made reference to.”
O’Connor, a Republican, made a point about needing to create a bill that is legally defensible, should Second Amendment rights’ groups challenge the legislation in court.
After his amendment was rejected, O’Connor voted against the bill alongside Republican Sens. Peter Durant and Ryan Fattman. Tarr was the only Republican who voted in favor of the bill.
The minority leader praised several amendments to the bill, which he said took it in the right direction.
Under a Sen. John Velis of Westfield amendment, repeat offenders of crimes related to gun violence would be detained until their trial if they violated conditions of release from arrest.
“In my district, in October of this year, in Holyoke, three individuals started a gunfight, a firefight in broad daylight at high noon, and a stray bullet hit a completely innocent pregnant woman on a bus driving by. The woman was rushed to the hospital, where her newborn baby was delivered, but tragically did not survive,” Velis said. “If this tragedy was not horrific enough, one of these individuals involved in this firefight had been arrested a week prior — a week prior — on unrelated firearms charges, and had been let out on bail to walk the streets of Holyoke.”
Velis said the amendment would “finally create consequences” for those charged with unlawful violence, and would help protect community members who fear gun violence. He added that this violence is more likely to affect minority-majority communities, and stopping the “revolving door for repeat gun offenders” would help keep these neighborhoods safe.
Several senators praised the amendment, and alluded to behind-closed-doors debate around it. Velis said taking anyone’s liberty away was “not done lightly,” but was meant to keep innocent people safe.
“We need to focus on bad actors and people who are breaking the law and threatening public safety,” Tarr said. “And we need to balance that with the impact we are having on law abiding gun owners, and we needed to make sure that we were focusing on the real source of the problem, not the person that gets a license, not the person that gets background check, not the person that registers their firearm, not the person that stores their firearm correctly.”
Senators also adopted a Fattman amendment to create a crime punishable by five years in prison for firing a gun at a police officer, as well as an amendment to clarify that certain guns legally bought prior to 2016 are “legacy” weapons, and can still be legally held, though the new bill would make new purchases illegal.
Several other amendments had to do with improving firearm tracing, data collection around gun violence, and out-of-state crime gun trafficking reporting.
Creem and House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Michael Day are likely to lead private House-Senate talks over a possible compromise bill drawing some aspects of the House bill and others from the Senate legislation. The six lawmakers assigned to a potential conference committee would likely have to finish their work before July 31, when formal business is slated to end until 2025.
As senators were debating the bill, federal prosecutors in Boston announced that a Boston man pleaded guilty Thursday to illegally selling a dozen machine gun conversion devices. The U.S. attorney’s office said Elijah Navarro, 24, sold the first two machine gun conversion devices to an individual for $400 and later sold 10 more devices for an additional $1,300.
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