By Nick Neville
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in The Sun Chronicle.
BOSTON — As the national conversation surrounding gun laws shifts in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association remains steadfast in its support of legislation that would affirm Second Amendment rights throughout the state.
In a wide-ranging interview, Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, said it’s been difficult to fix “oppressive” and “ineffective” Massachusetts gun laws because the laws themselves are so difficult to understand.
The Northboro-based gun rights lobby is advocating for more than 20 bills currently before the Legislature — and opposing 10 others — but Wallace said collaboration with Beacon Hill has been generally positive throughout his 18-year-career with GOAL.
“We’ve had a very good relationship with the Statehouse for quite a long time — it’s just a matter of trying to get things accomplished,” he said. “Anything to do with the Second Amendment as a civil rights issue is unfortunately kind of incendiary in the political world so it’s difficult to even get simple things fixed.”
Wallace referenced GOAL’s role in amending 2014 legislation titled an Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence as evidence of the organization’s willingness to work with legislators on both sides.
Though GOAL’s objectives haven’t shifted, Wallace admitted that conversations with lawmakers have somewhat changed in light of last month’s mass shooting.
“For the most part my job has been actually trying to tell [legislators] what we already have for gun laws, which is very difficult,” he said. “One of the senators back in 2014 wasn’t on our side, but he still said, ‘We need to understand what we have, could you come in and give us like a 20-minute briefing?’ I said, ‘No, it would take about 48 hours.’”
The 16,000-member GOAL worries that the convoluted nature of Massachusetts gun laws makes it difficult for legislators to come to a consensus on how to improve them.
One key step, he said, that the Legislature can take this session would be to pass H.1296, sponsored by Rep. James R. Miceli, D-Wilmington, which would create a new section of law that affirms the right to keep and bear arms as an individual civil right.
“Once we have that in place then that sets forth a whole lot of other conversations that it’s not so easy just to go after the thing and they’re going to have to start doing the hard work and go after the human element parts, whether it’s mental health or crime,” Wallace said.
Gun control advocates say they are ready for that conversation.
Gail Erdos, Middlesex group co-lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, believes the perception that her organization is looking to take away people’s guns is inaccurate.
“That’s not at all what we’re trying to do,” she said. “We are just trying to keep in place or put in new place sensible gun reform that doesn’t infringe on anyone’s rights and we get a lot of support from law enforcement.”
Moms Demand Action was founded by Shannon Watts in December 2012 following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Its Massachusetts chapter has grown to more than 5,300 members, and Erdos said new member orientation meetings that typically draw 20 people have attracted closer to 100 in recent weeks.
For Erdos, a Belmont resident, gun reform is personal. Gun deaths took the lives of two people close to her, and she has sought legislative reform measures for years.
“We started right after Sandy Hook and no one thought we would still be having to do this,” she said.
Bills filed by Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, and Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, seek to address the human element by establishing a process for Extreme Risk Protective Orders.
Under the bill, a family member, law enforcement officer or health care provider could petition the court to temporarily restrict one’s right to own a gun if he or she is deemed a risk to themselves or others.
Linsky’s bill, H3610, has been sent to a study order, but he is hopeful that one of the bills will receive a vote on the House floor before the end of the legislative session in July.
Advocates including Moms Demand Action pushed for the bill’s passage last month at the Statehouse, and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the legislation could help prevent tragedies like the Parkland school shooting.
Wallace doesn’t believe it’s that simple.
“If you’re looking to identify the next Parkland monster, all the bill does is take their gun away — their legal gun — and send them home,” Wallace said. “That’s absurd. Because if we truly have identified the next potential monster, why are we setting them free?”
Advocates claim 58 percent of Massachusetts gun deaths in 2016 were suicides, and while they protective orders could help solve this problem, Wallace argues that it would make matters worse.
“If you take somebody who has a temporary crisis and drag them through a court process, you’re going to exacerbate their problem,” he said. “…You’re not getting them the counseling they need, you’re not getting them the care they need, and you’ve probably destroyed their life because you’ve labeled them an extreme public safety risk for the rest of their life.”
Linsky said this concern is misplaced, citing studies that followed up a similar Connecticut law. One such study was compiled by Jeffrey Swanson, Duke University psychiatry professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, and nine other researchers.
“Their analysis is that it has prevented at least 73 suicides,” he said. “And that most people who are subject to the order use that as a wakeup call to go out and get mental health treatment.”
This is not GOAL’s only gripe with Healey, as it filed a civil rights lawsuit against her in January 2017 asserting that the Massachusetts ban on assault weapons, first passed in 1998, is unlawful.
In the 33-page civil complaint, GOAL said that the state’s definition of these weapons is “non-technical, entirely fabricated, and the political term of uncertain definition and scope.” A trial date is set for May 7.
“It was a brand-new interpretation of a law that had been on the books and established for almost 20 years,” Wallace said. “And then suddenly one person with no hearings, no information, wakes up, holds a press conference and changes the law. As far as I know, we’re not supposed to be doing that in this country.”
Erdos thinks GOAL’s lawsuit is unnecessary because, she said, “It’s shocking that anybody thinks that we need any sort of assault weapon.
“What (Healey’s) trying to do is just keep that law in place and (GOAL’s) trying to go around it,” she added.
In addition to GOAL’s push for legislation that ranges from allowing crossbow hunting in the state to sales tax exemptions for gun safes and trigger locks, Wallace also voiced his support for a joint petition filed last month by Sen. Ryan Fattman and Rep. Joseph McKenna, both R-Webster.
The legislation, which is cosponsored by Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, would allow judges to sentence people convicted of both gun and opioid trafficking for up to life in prison.
“The one thing that (GOAL is) insistent upon is that people are illegally abusing the Second Amendment and there should be consequences,” Fattman said. “We need to enforce the laws that are on the books and a lot of times we’re told that that doesn’t happen.”
Fattman, who called Wallace a “well-respected guy on Beacon Hill,” said the legislation is important to start the conversation around trafficking.
As for the national response to the gun debate, Wallace believes other states should not adopt laws similar to “oppressive” ones in the Bay State. This comes after Sen. Edward Markey’s proposal last week to offer incentives up to $20 million for states that adopt laws modeled after those in Massachusetts.
Earlier this month, Senate President Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, announced that she and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, sent a letter to Congress sharing what could be a “simple formula” for gun control. In it, Chandler noted Massachusetts measures to ensure strict background checks, ban bump stocks and trigger cranks and reject “concealed carry reciprocity” legislation.
In response, Wallace said that he’s “very concerned” that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is not working properly and that the bump stock ban was a distraction to avoid addressing mental health issues.
“If you look at the handful of atrocities that are out there, Newtown, Parkland, the Aurora movie theater, it’s a small number of people with very severe mental health illness,” he said. “Why aren’t we addressing that rather than trying to restrict 100 million lawful people?”
On the subject of arming teachers, GOAL appears less bullish than its national counterpart.
“I think teachers have enough work to do, but if the administration is OK with it and the teacher is OK with it, and they want to get some extra training, alright, we can have that conversation,” Wallace said. “But we are completely dead set against forcing anybody to carry a gun.”