Barry-Smith details role in AG’s gun ban enforcement

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 9, 2016…..One of Attorney General Maura Healey’s top deputies on Wednesday defended Healey’s controversial decision earlier this year to heighten her enforcement of the state’s assault weapon ban, but suggested that action should not be the sole determinant of whether he is fit for a judgeship.

Gov. Charlie Baker last month nominated First Assistant Attorney General Christopher Barry-Smith to a seat on the Superior Court bench, a move that prompted pushback from gun rights advocates who blame him for any role he might have played in Healey’s July 20 announcement that she would enforce a ban on the sale of copies or duplicates of guns prohibited by the 1998 in Massachusetts.

Appearing before the Governor’s Council for the second day of a confirmation hearing that began last week, Barry-Smith said that the work around the assault weapons ban was an “important part” of what he’s done in the attorney general’s office and that he hoped he would be evaluated based on his full 17-year career in that office, “not just the last six months.”

“I don’t know that it would be fair to hold me accountable as to whether I’m an appropriate candidate for the judiciary based on the policy decisions that are ultimately Attorney General Healey’s decisions, but I do think it’s fair to inquire about anything that I’ve done in the attorney general’s office,” he said.

Barry-Smith’s involvement in the enforcement action had not previously been discussed publicly.

He told the council that after the June 12 mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida nightclub, Healey assembled a working group among her staff to “assess the risk of military-style assault weapons in Massachusetts and see if there’s anything that we as the chief law enforcement officers should do about it.” He said he did not serve on the working group, but later was part of the team that reviewed that group’s suggestions.

“My role in that, with respect to that issue was twofold,” Barry-Smith said. “First, with the government bureau that I oversee, we assessed the attorney general’s authority to interpret and enforce the copies-and-duplicates language in the manner she did, and second, when it came to how to implement that decision, I urged the path that we eventually took which was to rather than interpret and enforce it by way of bringing criminal charges or civil action, to issue a public advisory.”

Critics of Healey’s actions have described her enforcement notice as both overly vague and an overreach of her authority.

Councilor Jennie Caissie pressed Barry-Smith on the timing of Healey’s announcement, noting it came during the Republican National Convention and shortly before the Democratic Party held its own convention in Philadelphia. Healey participated in a panel on gun laws during her party’s convention and discussed the enforcement action while addressing Massachusetts Democrats in Pennsylvania.

“That just reeked of politics,” Caissie said.

Barry-Smith responded, “You can keep placing that motivation on it. I can only tell you what I experienced and what I described, that it was immediately after the Orlando massacre.” He said Healey acted out of “fair-minded and proper motivation.”

Caissie also questioned Barry-Smith on his lack of criminal law experience, which she called “very concerning.” She said the council had voted before to confirm nominees with little or no experience with criminal cases if they had “extensive trial experience” to compensate.

Barry-Smith said that while he did not have any criminal trial experience, he had spent five years overseeing the criminal bureau and other divisions in the attorney general’s office.

Councilors Terrence Kennedy and Christopher Iannella both said Healey and former Attorney General Martha Coakley called them to express support for Barry-Smith. Coakley attended a portion of Wednesday’s hearing.

Under questioning from Councilor Robert Jubinville — who grilled the nominee for more than two hours between this week and last — Barry-Smith said he believes minorities are disproportionately incarcerated in Massachusetts and that the court system should “make the most of” diversion programs that exist for defendants who are addicted to drugs.

“Every part of the government should be providing pathways to recovery,” Barry-Smith said.

He said he thinks jail sentences can serve as deterrents, particularly in cases of white-collar crime, which he said “rarely, if ever results in jail time.” Barry-Smith said that in such cases, alternative punishments, such as the payment of fines, can be “very ineffective” in deterring future similar crimes.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service