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Massachusetts is part of national gun debate

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News

A bi-partisan group of 20 U.S. Senators Sunday announced an outline for gun safety reform, signaling a step forward in the effort to address recent back-to-back mass shootings while also balancing second amendment rights.

The package’s key points include “enhanced review” of juvenile and mental health records of would-be gun buyers under 21, support for state and tribal governments to implement so-called “red flag” laws like Massachusetts’ 2018 law that removes weapons from people deemed dangerous, and “major investments” to ease access to community mental health and suicide prevention programs, according to the announcement.

News of the federal compromise drew praise from Massachusetts-based gun law reform advocates.

“Our strong gun laws are great,” said Rina Schneur, co-lead for the Massachusetts chapter of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. “But they’re only as good as our borders and we don’t have borders between states, so having federal gun laws is as important.”

Massachusetts is typically applauded for having some of the nation’s strongest gun laws, but as a potential federal gun control deal emerges, Schneur and others say if the state wants to stay ahead on the issue, restricting all gun purchases to those 21 and up and banning ghost guns are among the list of local reforms.

Ari Freilich is state policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national organization formed in the wake of the 2011 attempted assassination of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The organization’s latest annual gun law scorecard gave Massachusetts an A- grade for its laws.

Freilich singled out age requirements as one place where Massachusetts lags behind other states with strict gun regulations.

With parental permission, children as young as 15 may obtain a firearm identification card required to possess non-large capacity rifles and shotguns in Massachusetts, and a person must be at least 18 years old to purchase one of those guns. Other firearms, like large capacity handguns, rifles and shotguns, require people to obtain a license to carry and be at least 21 years old for purchase.

“The Uvalde school shooter purchased his murder weapons just days after he became eligible under Texas law when he turned 18,” Freilich said. “In some states, he would not have been able to buy those weapons for another three years.”

Firearms like the one used in the Uvalde attack are known as AR-15-style rifles since they are modeled like the popular semiautomatic gun first manufactured by ArmaLite, Inc. These guns are sometimes referred to as assault weapons and are banned in Massachusetts.

Though federal law restricts long gun sales to people 18 or older, a handful of states have enacted stricter laws. California, Illinois and a few other states require rifle and shotgun buyers be at least 21 years old. Just this month, New York signed into law a higher age limit for purchasing semiautomatic rifles — a response to a last month’s mass shooting in which a teen gunman is suspected of opening fire on a Buffalo grocery in a predominately Black community.

Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners Action League, the state association for gun owners, said he wouldn’t support such a law. He pointed to a recent ruling of a federal appeals court that found California’s ban on the sale of certain guns to adults younger than 21 unconstitutional.

“The carnage that we’ve seen from these killers, the common denominator is not access to a certain tool, it’s that they’re severely mentally ill and they’re allowed to walk amongst us,” Wallace said.

Last year, a team of researchers who examined mass shooters found that many suffered from mental illness that went untreated as they committed their crimes.

“If we’re going to, once again, kick the can down the road [with an age threshold increase] what happens when that psychotic killer turns 21?” he asked.

Another immediate step gun safety organizations endorse is banning so-called ghost guns, or user-assembled firearms that typically lack serial numbers and are difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace.

Sellers of such weapons exploit a loophole that allows gun parts to bought and sold more freely than fully assembled guns.

President Joe Biden’s administration has attempted to address the problem with a new U.S. Justice Department policy that will legally define the easy assembly ghost gun kits as firearms and require sellers to become federally licensed, include serial numbers on their products and run background checks on buyers prior to sale. Gun rights advocates have vowed to challenge the rule.

“I don’t think an approach to our civil liberties with a view to law enforcement’s ease is the right way to think about things,” said Cody Wilson, founder of the firearms blueprint nonprofit Defense Distributed.

Wilson pleaded guilty to injury of a child, a felony, after having sex with an underage girl. While federal law bars felons from buying or selling guns at stores, Wilson’s plea deal allows him to maintain ownership of his guns and run a business that sells plans for making 3D-printed guns.

Wilson said responsible commercial manufacturers should serialize their components and participate with law enforcement to help solve crimes. But he does not believe ghost guns are the problem that Biden and activists are making them out to be, pointing out the lack of ghost guns in the recent shootings that seized the national consciousness.

“Our space — the ghost gun space specifically — emerges with a clientele or a customer base which does not trust law enforcement,” Wilson said in an interview with GBH News. “I don’t want the NSA and the FBI and all these people to have special access to our communications … neither do I want a great many law enforcement agencies to have access to our gun records.”

Exactly how many ghost guns have been used to commit crimes in Massachusetts remains unclear.

In an email exchange earlier this month, a media official for the Massachusetts State Police said their database is not capable of determining how many ghost guns were recovered from crime scenes in the past year, but “the actual criminal charge would be the same for any illegally possessed firearm (including ghost guns).”

In Boston, police say 9% of the 636 guns recovered from crime scenes last year were ghost guns. The issue came into the local spotlight after a recent arrest prompted the seizure of multiple gun parts at what interim Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden referred to as a “ghost gun mill.”

Freilich said ghost guns are typically a day-to-day problem in states that strongly regulate gun ownership. He said some states have brought forth laws to treat the core portions of the weapons the same as guns and/or regulate the 3D printers that can be used to create gun parts.

Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said her organization supports both the minimum purchase age increase and stronger regulation of ghost guns to combat the more routine incidents of violence in local communities. Guns represented the killing instrument in nearly 30% of the 150 recorded homicides across the state in 2021, according to data from the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

“Gun violence is happening in communities in Massachusetts all the time,” Zakarin said. That fact, she said, can easily be drowned out by public fixation on mass shootings, which is only one type of gun violence.

“And there should be public outcry on these mass shootings, it’s absolutely horrible and traumatic. But, we also want to make sure we’re still really putting a lens on violence that happens particularly in urban communities, all the time,” said Zakarin.

Her organization also supports a pending bill that would compel the state to do thorough analysis of data collected from guns in the aftermath of shootings.

To tackle the issue from yet another angle, State Treasurer Deb Goldberg has again proposed triggering the public pension fund to divest from firearms-related companies.

Approximately $2 million of the $101.5 billion retirement system, or slightly less than 2%, is in firearms-related investments.

Goldberg proposed the move in 2018 after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where another teen gunman killed 17 people and injured as many others.

The measure went to study this spring and, since then, according to her office, no legislators have reached out about it thus far.

Multiple lawmakers did not respond to GBH News requests for comment on Goldberg’s proposal.

“We’re going to move the needle on gun violence when we take a variety of means to make change,” said Zakarin, voicing support for Goldberg’s idea.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.

gun laws, gun safety reform, gun violence, Second Amendment