By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- The Senate passed a comprehensive anti-gun violence bill on Thursday that strengthens background checks and seeks to improve school safety, but also dropped a key provision from House legislation that would have given police chiefs more discretion to deny rifle permits.
The late change to the bill appeared to be enough to secure the support of the local chapter of the National Rifle Association, but gun control advocates blasted senators for weakening the legislation in the face of mounting pressure from gun owners.
Sen. James Timilty, a Walpole Democrat who carried the bill in the Senate, said he supported removing the provision that would allow police chiefs discretion in issuing firearms licenses for rifles. The bill still allows chiefs discretion in issuing handgun licenses."This was something that I felt very strongly about," Timilty told reporters, stating that the amended bill would "reflect the constitution." Asked if he expected to receive the support of the Gun Owners Action League after the change, Timilty said, "I would imagine that many of their members would be happy if they calmly view the totality of what we did."
"There was no pressure from angry gun owners," Timilty added.
Under current law, local licensing authorities must give people who pass a background check a firearms identification card. Police chiefs, however, have the discretion to issue a license to carry a handgun.
The Senate voted 28-10 for a Sen. Michael Moore amendment to remove that section of the bill, while retaining the ability of police chiefs to deny FID cards if the applicant fits into a category on the prohibited persons list, such as someone convicted of a felony. The overall bill cleared the Senate on a voice vote, and is now likely destined for a conference committee with the House and just 14 days left in the formal session.
The bill also requires suicide prevention training for school personnel and improved communication between schools and law enforcement in the event of an emergency. Every school district would be required to have at least one school resource officer, except vocational school which can share with their participating municipalities.
The Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence said that while it supported the inclusion of background checks for private gun sales and the ability to trace guns used in crimes it could not support the amended Senate bill.
"The Mass. Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence is disappointed by the Senate's actions today, which significantly weaken the gun violence prevention legislation passed by the House. Removing discretion from police chiefs makes it more difficult to keep rifles and handguns out of the hands of those who pose a risk of suicide or domestic violence, in addition to the public at large," the coalition said in a statement.
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said it could be the first time in state history that the organization has supported a gun control bill of this magnitude in Massachusetts.
"For the most part, we said today if we could change this one paragraph, we're going to make history. Today we made history," Wallace said. "There's a couple small amendments I want to look at, but I think we're there."
GOAL took a "neutral" position on the House gun bill, but hardened its stance as the bill moved into the Senate and vowed to fight to remove the "suitability determination" powers for police chiefs from the legislation. Wallace said GOAL had not been overruled by the NRA, which had a representative at the State House Thursday.
Asked about the lobbying effort over the past week in the Senate, Wallace said, "I never like to use the word pressure because it means I'm bullying somebody. I think our opinion certainly was there. I think our members made the calls and the emails that they needed to make. And it was an education process too. It's not just a matter of slamming your fist on the table and demanding somebody vote some way."
Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat who voted against the Moore amendment because Boston Police Commissioner William Evans thought discretion was an important piece of the bill, said he would have support the bill had it been roll called.
"I think that Sen. Timilty did a real good job coming up with a comprehensive reform bill that will make it safer for kids but not infringe upon the second amendment rights of lawful gun owners in Massachusetts. I think it's a great balance," Petruccelli said.
Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, called the Moore amendment "a huge step backward" and said she didn't know how she would vote on the bill if the suitability standard section isn't added back by the conference committee.
"I understand the NRA weighed in and that was some influence to people," Creem said. "Frankly, it wasn't until today that I had any inkling that that amendment would have any traction. Obviously I was not lobbied by the NRA."
Sen. Stephen Brewer, of Barre, said he would not have supported any legislation that he thought would unfairly infringe on the rights of his constituents to legally carry weapons for recreation, and suggested the Moore amendment was the opening he was looking for to allow him to support the bill and improve safety for children.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said the bill would make licensing more sensible and sends mental health information to the national background check database. Tarr also noted a provision that requires private gun sales to take place at either a licensed dealer or using a "web portal.""I think in the past, these kinds of bills have been very narrowly focused, and have sought to achieve one objective or another and have been somewhat divisive. I think in this case, we have a comprehensive bill that addresses some subjects that have been very elusive over the years, and some that needed to be addressed, like mental health issues, like how do we respond effectively to gun issues in schools," Tarr said. "I think rather than being a divisive exercise, this was a unifying exercise."Tarr, who often calls for roll calls on items up for a vote in the Senate, said he "absolutely" would have supported the final version of the bill if there had been a roll call, and he said members were already recorded on one of the "divisive" issues, so a roll call on the final bill could arguably be seen as "perfunctory.""I think once that issue was addressed, there wasn't a need to take a vote on something I think the Senate as a whole felt very strongly about," Tarr said.
National Rifle Association lobbyist John Hohenwarter the Senate's changes were "positive for gun owners," and said the bill is "in much better shape than it was when it came over from the House." Hohenwarter said the "web portal" is an "interesting concept" and said there are "unanswered questions" about how the federal background database compliance would work.
Andy Metzger contributed reporting.