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Tougher gun laws needed to combat violence in Boston

In response to letters from three students at the Harbor School in Dorchester, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, a Boston mayoral candidate, shared his thoughts on preventing youth vi

Daniel F. Conley

In response to letters from three students at the Harbor School in Dorchester, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, a Boston mayoral candidate, shared his thoughts on preventing youth violence. The below is excerpted from Conley’s speech last Saturday at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Fields Corner.

In any given year in Boston, more people are killed by illegal firearms than every other weapon combined. Over the past 11 years, 27 children age 16 or under have been killed in Boston by firearms in the wrong hands. That’s a classroom of children lost to gun violence every decade.

Any sensible anti-violence strategy has to address the problem of illegal firearms and the people who use them. This is common sense. But as we saw in Washington last month, a too-powerful gun lobby, in league with enablers like Mitch McConnell, prevented even the most watered-down gun reform from passing the U.S. Senate.

As a result, we have to redouble our own efforts in Massachusetts. I’ve drafted “An Act to Combat Gun Violence,” which tackles the secondary gun market and makes 26 changes to Massachusetts law to close loopholes and address flaws we see in court and on the street every day.

This bill isn’t flashy, but it focuses laser-like on handgun violence. It makes critically important changes to our laws based on our own experience in our courtrooms and on our streets.

This legislation accomplishes many things that we are certain will help prevent guns from winding up in the wrong hands. For example, when the Legislature increased the penalty for illegally carrying firearms in 2006, it neglected to increase the penalty for illegally selling them.

And when it forbade felons from becoming licensed firearm dealers, it neglected to bar dealers from hiring felons. This bill would close both of those loopholes, providing a 2½-year minimum for unlawfully selling a firearm and forbidding felons from employment or volunteer positions with a licensed firearms dealer.

Massachusetts provides enhanced penalties for unlawful possession of a firearm as a second or subsequent offense, but that statute doesn’t cover large capacity weapons, loaded weapons on the street, or unlicensed firearms in a home or place of business. This bill provides uniform coverage for all second or subsequent firearm possession offenses, and it makes clear that out-of-state gun convictions count as predicate offenses under those statutes.

Massachusetts law now imposes a minimum year and a half behind bars for carrying an illegal firearm on a public way. However, the same defendant, with the same record, possessing the same illegal firearm, loaded with the same ammunition, can get no time at all if that illegal weapon is recovered inside his home or place of business.

This loophole affects as many 25 percent of our gun convictions, oftentimes among the most serious cases — the ones involving search warrants based on long-term drug and gang investigations. This bill will close the loophole and provide the same penalty for the same gun no matter where it’s recovered.

The bill would also would require handgun firing pins to be microstamped with a unique identification number that’s then transferred to shell casings, making it easier for investigators to identify the firearms used in fatal and nonfatal shootings.

The technology exists, it’s getting better every day, it’s required under a 2007 law currently on hold in California and it’s being looked at in six other states. It was the subject of a 2008 federal bill advanced in the Senate by Ted Kennedy. There are few cases tougher to crack than street shootings with no witnesses, and this change would have an immediate effect on our ability to solve them.

This bill would also force gun owners to carry insurance to cover accidental or unlawful injuries inflicted with their firearms. This would not extend to lawful cases of self-defense, but it would apply to the hundreds of injuries and fatalities each year that are the direct result of negligent or improper use of firearms.

Despite what critics of this proposal say, I think most people would agree that if we require a license, registration and insurance to drive a car, why shouldn’t we expect the same of a gun? We all recognize gun owners Second Amendment rights, but with every right comes responsibilities, and keeping guns out of the wrong hands is a responsibility we all need to embrace.

In March, the Journal of the American Medical Association released the results of a four-year study correlating gun legislation and firearm-related fatalities. Their findings were unequivocal — a higher number of state firearm laws are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities, overall and for suicides and homicides.

The good news is that Massachusetts was at the top of the list for high legislative strength and low rates of gun fatalities. But the bad news is that homicide remains the single leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24 in Massachusetts. We can do better — and we will.