BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – A redrafted version of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s gun violence prevention bill emerged late Tuesday after weeks of negotiations between House Democrats and gun owner advocates that may be enough to win over skeptical lawmakers.
The House plans to debate and vote on the gun control bill (H 4121) Wednesday, and the House Ways and Means Committee opened a poll of the committee’s members Tuesday evening giving the panel just 16 hours to review the new legislation before their votes to advance the legislation were due.
“Since we unveiled the gun safety bill, I have been in discussions with gun safety advocates, experts, gun owners and House members. Our work has resulted in a bill that is fair and comprehensive,” DeLeo said in a statement. “I believe that the bill the House will debate tomorrow represents one of the most effective gun laws in the country, an important public safety measure that can serve as a model to other states.”
The original bill, which barely squeaked through the Public Safety Committee by a one-vote margin, was drafted with input from a task force appointed by DeLeo after the 2012 shootings inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Lawmakers in January 2013 joined together to call for passage of gun legislation but Beacon Hill leaders have been slow to rally around a single bill and with time running out on the session for controversial bills to advance.
Gun owners criticized DeLeo’s original legislation for erecting too many barriers to lawful gun ownership in an effort to limit the spread of illegal firearms and address the types of mental health issues than can lead to school and other community shootings.
The revised bill, according to a summary disseminated by the speaker’s office, would require the state to fully comply with a national instant background check system, and would authorize licensed gun dealers to access criminal histories prior to making a sale.
School districts would be required to have at least one resource officer and two-way communication devices with police and fire personnel in case of an emergency, as well as develop plans to address the mental health needs of its students.
The bill also retains a controversial provisions that would give the licensing authority, such as a local police chief, broader discretion to deny a firearm identification card or license to carry if “in the reasonable exercise of discretion” it determines the applicant to be unsuitable based on exhibited behavior or other factors that suggest the applicant could be a risk to public safety.
Rep. John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat who said he represents a lot of gun owners, said the new version requires police chiefs to have “reliable and credible information” in order to deny a license, and must put the specific reasons and evidence into writing, which could later be reviewed by a judge.
“We think that really puts some structure to what has been an unstructured situation up until now. If you think of it as a balance scale, the hope is that we brought that balance back,” Fernandes said, who worked with his fellow Democrats to bridge the divide with gun owners.
Fernandes said House leaders have also stripped a provision that would have required all private gun sales to be conducted through a licensed dealer, which would have created an addition hurdle and expense for gun owners trying to conduct a legal sale.
The compromise calls for the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services to develop an online portal for private sales that will speed the process of background checks without making it more difficult for legal gun owners to do business with one another, he said.
Other sections of the bill would create stiffer penalties for failure to report a lost or stolen firearm, while waiving the 90-day renewal process for a firearm identification card and reducing the fines for having an expired firearm license.
A new unit within the state police would be established to focus on firearms crime and trafficking and work with the attorney general’s office and district attorney’s in investigating firearms crimes.
In an effort to win support for DeLeo’s gun violence prevention bill, House Democrats have compromised enough that Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican and leading voice in the House for gun rights activists, now says he will support the bill.
“On the whole, this bill is miles in the direction of law abiding guns owners. I’m going to be supporting it. It’s going to be a delicate balance,” said Peterson, who reported after a call with the Gun Owners Action League that the group is “quite pleased” with the changes.
Peterson said his support would “evaporate very quickly” if changes are made to the bill on the floor to tip the balance away from lawful gun owners, and also said he will ask for a vote to be delayed a week to give lawmakers time to review the legislation.
“I think a bill of this important and complexity we should have a least a week for members to read it and comprehend it and talk tot their constituents, but I probably won’t be too successful,” Peterson said.
Peterson was particularly pleased to see language dropped that would have prohibited anyone with a misdemeanor conviction carrying a penalty of one year of incarceration or more from obtaining a firearm license. Under current law, a resident is only listed a “prohibited person” if they have been convicted of a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of at least two years in jail.
“It would have opened up a plethora of different crimes that had nothing to do with violence, so that got dropped pretty quickly,” he said.
Peterson also said the new state police unit will be responsible for gathering information on guns at crime scenes and collecting data that will law enforcement better understand what types of guns are being used to commit crimes and from where they are coming.
“This is something we’ve been working for long time and I think it’s a big step in the right direction,” he said.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issued a statement calling the legislation “sensible” and suggesting it would help reduce street violence. Walsh said that last year 46 percent of all traceable guns used to commit a crime in Boston originated from Massachusetts, with 37 percent of those guns making their way from a legal gun owner to a criminal in three years or less.
“These numbers show that we can and must do better for the people of Boston and the Commonwealth. I urge my partners in the House of Representatives and Senate to act favorably on this legislation as it is an integral part in our shared efforts to combat gun violence,” Walsh said.