Legislators eye stricter punishment for those who shoot at homes

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Elise Takahama
BU News Service

BOSTON – Paul Ratha Yem has been living in his Lowell home for 30 years. He and his family have always felt safe, but last weekend – for the first time – he woke to find what he thought were bullet holes through his window.

“It was pretty scary,” he said. “I have two young boys, 12 and 14. This has never happened before.”

Although police later determined the holes were most likely left by BB gun pellets, Lowell police Capt. James Hodgdon said, Yem, 65, was still shaken.

One BB pellet appeared to have gone through a living room window in Yem’s Mt. Vernon Street home in the city’s Acre section, and another left a hole in the side of the building.

“No matter if it’s a BB gun or a real gun, the penalty should be the same,” said Yem, who’s an active community member and local real-estate broker. “You could seriously hurt someone.”

While he didn’t think the shooting was targeted, he said he would strongly support legislation that enforced stricter punishments for those who fire weapons at homes.

“That will help deter this senseless shooting,” he said. “They think it’s just fun and games, but this is people’s lives.”

There has been an “alarming increase” in incidents where gunfire is directed at homes, said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who’s working with local legislators on a bill that would enforce more severe punishments for those who shoot at houses.

In the past two years, Middlesex County had 35 cases that included a charge of discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a dwelling, according to a spokeswoman for Ryan.

“It’s not just in Middlesex, but statewide … I think it’s the general reflection of the increasing number of guns that are out there,” Ryan said. “Guns are more often being used on the street than by going by and throwing a rock. People are more likely to use a firearm.”

The recent bill — which is being presented by state Rep. Rady Mom, D-Lowell — would fine an individual $10,000, imprison them in a house of corrections for 2 1/2 years or send them to state prison for 5 years. In some cases, individuals could be fined and imprisoned.

Mom did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Currently, there are two charges that would address a similar situation: discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a dwelling or — if the suspect fires and strikes with intent — malicious destruction. But neither carries a substantial punishment, Ryan said.

“We have had people who are struck by bullets that entered the house, fortunately all minor injuries,” she said. “We’ve also had really scary things — a wall hanging over a baby’s crib was hit and knocked down … Even if your house isn’t the one that’s hit, when you think about the randomness of this, you don’t want to live in a neighborhood where that happens, because it could be your house.”

Lowell has seen several instances where these types of incidents have occurred, said state Sen. Ed Kennedy, D-Lowell.

“The penalty right now for shooting a gun in residential areas at homes is just a misdemeanor,” Kennedy said. “That’s inadequate and doesn’t match the severity of the crime … People should feel safe in their neighborhoods.”

While some cities, such as Leominster and Fitchburg, haven’t seen the same dramatic increase in gunfire directed toward homes, law enforcement officials and local legislators still think a change in policy would be beneficial.

“We don’t see a lot of that, but I do believe that the laws are fairly weak on that,” said Leominster Police Chief Michael Goldman. “You’re talking about misdemeanors here. If you’re going to revamp the gun laws, you want to look at the punishments.”

Goldman said he would be in support of stricter penalties, as long as the legislation takes into consideration all scenarios, including situations like an inadvertent hunting mishap.

State Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, also advocated for a change in policy.

“Given the work I’ve done with domestic violence and sexual violence survivors, I’m definitely concerned about folks’ safety and making sure they feel safe in their homes and on their property,” Higgins said. “I think we need to have a discussion about it, and if there’s a gap in the law … we should definitely work with police to make sure they have all the tools they need.”

After last weekend’s incident, Yem said he’s energized about working toward a long-term solution.

“The law should be amended to include stiffer penalties,” he said. “But people should also get involved with their neighborhood groups and look out for each other and look out for the neighborhood.”

This article was previously published in The Lowell Sun.

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