By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- All private firearms sales should be completed through a licensed dealer, live-fire training should be required for those seeking a license, and the state should comply in a limited capacity with the National Instant Background Check System, according to the long-awaited recommendations of a team of experts advising House Speaker Robert DeLeo on gun policy.
While concluding that Massachusetts "already has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation," DeLeo's Committee to Reduce Gun Violence offered 44 recommendations on Monday to reduce gun violence and gun suicide, to improve public safety, and to standardize gun licensure throughout the state.
"Virtually every gun begins as a legal gun, in the hands of someone who passed a background check," the task force wrote in a 23-page report, noting that most gun owners handle their weapons lawfully, and suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths.
Some recommendations could be greeted warmly by gun rights supporters, while others could face opposition, as they might add burdens for specific gun sales.
"The Committee recognizes that changes such as those proposed in this report may be challenging, but if adopted, provides a pathway to further reduce gun violence in the Commonwealth," the task force wrote in its conclusion.
The committee headed by Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice expert and dean at Northeastern University, recommended no changes to the restriction limiting large-capacity magazines to 10 rounds.
Many gun owners, including Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican, have experienced long delays in their re-licensing, a problem that spurred the committee to recommend gun licenses remain valid until they are re-approved or denied by the state.
The committee also recommended doing away with the Class B license, which allows people to carry non-concealed non-high-capacity weapons, and for additional suitability requirements for those applying for a firearm identification card - which is easier to obtain than a concealed-carry permit.
"Massachusetts is not a state where licensees routinely carry their firearms on their hip in the open," the task force wrote. "As a result, only a small number of Class B licenses are issued in any given year."
The task force recommended school resource officers be approved jointly by police and school officials, increased social workers in schools, and higher penalties for unauthorized possession of a gun on school grounds.
The task force's recommendations could start the ball rolling on gun legislation on Beacon Hill.
Rep. Harold Naughton, a Clinton Democrat, candidate for attorney general and co-chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, had initially planned for the committee to release a gun bill around the beginning of last autumn after traveling around the state holding hearings on the various gun proposals.
Groups with contrasting agendas, such as Stop Handgun Violence and Gun Owners Action League, have been awaiting the conclusion of the speaker's task force, which has held 15 meetings, not open to the public, since DeLeo appointed the group on March 28, 2013.
GOAL generally wants better mental health screening for gun applicants and compliance with the NICS database, and GOAL opposes such measures as "micro-stamping" where identifying information is printed on a bullet when it is fired, and limits on the number of guns that can be purchased in a month.
The task force didn't recommend limiting the number of guns that can be sold or requiring micro-stamping, and the group sought a limited participation with the federal database.
"The committee urges that any legislative changes not further stigmatize individuals with mental disorders nor ostracize individuals from seeking treatment and services," the report said.
The task force found people with mental disorders are more likely to be the victim of violence, and said the groups with a heightened risk for future violence are people convicted of a violent misdemeanor, people subject to a domestic violence restraining order, people convicted of two or more intoxicated driving crimes in a period of five years, and people convicted of two or more misdemeanors involving a controlled substance in a period of five years.
Stop Handgun Violence founder John Rosenthal has said the state should include "copycat" weapons among the list of banned "assault" weapons. The report did not contain such a recommendation.
The report also notes the relative safety Massachusetts residents enjoy. Between 2001 and 2010, the nation's per capita gun homicide rate was 2.5 times higher than Massachusetts; total gun deaths were 3 times higher in the nation at large; and nationally people committed suicide by gun at a rate 3.5 times higher than in Massachusetts. Generally 13 percent of Bay State households report having a gun, putting it near the lowest gun ownership rate in America, below Hawaii and sometimes below New Jersey.
In summary, the recommendations included:
-- The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association should work with the Massachusetts Gun Control Advisory Board to develop a set of factors determining what constitutes a suitable person for gun ownership and licensure.
In the report, the committee wrote, "Current Massachusetts law does much to prohibit unsuitable persons from acquiring firearms, but the Committee believes that the current system could be improved . . . In Massachusetts the current licensing system is confusing to many and causes local police officials to spend extra effort deciding on the type of license that is appropriate. The committee recognizes that there have been many complaints that the lack of specific suitability standards has made the application process inconsistent throughout the municipalities in Massachusetts. The committee also believes that placing a definition of suitability in statute will not provide the necessary flexibility and discretion needed in allowing the licensing authority to make a reasoned decision."
-- People applying for a firearms identification card should undergo the same suitability standards as those seeking a gun license, and the state should eliminate the Class B license.
"Current Massachusetts law sets parameters for those who wish to carry a handgun or possess a rifle or shotgun," the report said. "Beyond those parameters, however, a Chief of Police may deny a license to carry to someone that he finds 'unsuitable'. No such allowance exists for a firearms identification card. As a result, a person who may have been arrested numerous times without having been convicted must be granted a firearms identification card."
-- Licenses should remain valid until they are either approved or denied, as long as the licensee applied for a new license before it expired, and there should be a "workable civil penalty" for expired licenses or FID cards.
-- Firearms safety courses should be required to include "an extensive live fire component," and the safety courses should be standardized and accredited, with a module on suicide.
-- Conflicting state and federal law should be clarified so the state adopts the federal ban on convicted felons receiving an FID card. Current state law permits certain people to have their right to an FID card restored five years after a felony conviction.
-- There should be background checks for all secondary private firearm sales, and the sales and checks should be completed through a licensed gun dealer, though there could be exemptions. In addition, all employees of licensed firearm dealers should be required to pass a background check.
-- Upon license renewal, gun owners should verify they still possess all guns registered to them, there should be increased civil penalties for failing to report a stolen gun, and records from defunct gun dealers should be transferred to the Office of Public Safety and Security.
-- There should be a tax incentive to encourage the purchase of gun safes, and the state should not require that firearms be stored at gun ranges, which some have proposed.
-- The secretary of education should create a working committee to develop standardized protocols for school safety. Gov. Deval Patrick created a school safety task force in January. School systems should have school resource officers, who are appointed jointly by the superintendent and police chief, and not based on seniority. Schools should have access to radios to communicate with police and fire departments.
-- The penalty for possession of an unauthorized firearm on the school grounds should be doubled from one year of imprisonment to two years and the offense should be made a "statutory right of arrest."
-- The state should narrow its parameters for reporting to the National Instant Background Check System and go into compliance with that system. "The Committee believes that only individuals who are drug dependent, substance abusers or have mental illness based upon a judicial finding of either substance abuse or mental illness and a likelihood of serious harm should be reported to NCIS. Individuals who seek voluntary treatment or are involuntarily hospitalized for assessment and evaluation should not be reported," the report said.
-- The state should consider a public service campaign encouraging family members to alert authorities when someone "may hurt themselves or others."
-- Schools should develop a mental health plan and more funding should be available for schools to identify and treat students with mental illness.
-- There should be increased funding for mental health and substance abuse in urban areas, as well as neighborhood outreach workers, job programs, and family intervention. Overall, the task force members concluded that the state's public mental health system "has eroded over the past ten years; on a relative basis, there was more funding for public mental health services in 2003 than in 2013."