Gun control and gun safety groups threw their support behind a sweeping bill from House Democrats that would crack down on untraceable “ghost guns,” update the state’s so-called red flag law, limit the presence of firearms in public spaces, streamline the licensing process and more.
Meanwhile, aggrieved gun owners contended the legislation represents an unconstitutional infringement on their Second Amendment rights without offering much, if any, upside to public safety.
Representatives — who are circumventing their colleagues in the Senate to advance the bill — sat for more than six hours of public feedback ahead of a vote on the bill expected some time this month. The hearing began shortly after 11 a.m. and was still going as the clock passed 5:30 p.m.
Although Democrats pitched a new draft of the bill (HD 4607) as different enough to address criticism of an earlier version from Rep. Michael Day, gun owners and the groups that represent them responded with not just opposition but also anger and contempt. At least two individual gun owners who trekked to the State House to address lawmakers declared that if the bill becomes law, they will refuse to comply with it.
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, called the legislation “the most egregious attack on civil rights I have seen from a government in this century, in Massachusetts and nationwide.”
“This is nothing but a tantrum after Bruen,” he said, referring to a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down New York’s concealed-carry law and has drawn the attention of Massachusetts Democrats. “Even though there’s nothing in here to reduce crime, suicides and everything else, for the first time in my career I’m going to say this: you might have a bigger problem, because 600,000 lawful citizens are going to tap out. We’re done. We’re done. Twenty-five years of trying to comply with the garbage laws that have only increased crime and suicide in Massachusetts, and now you’re going to do it again, and make it worse?”
“I would urge everybody in this building to tread very cautiously on how you proceed with this thing, because you’re gonna make history, and it’s not gonna be good history,” Wallace added.
Toby Leary, a co-owner of Cape Gun Works in Hyannis, said he “will not comply” with the proposed reforms, both in his individual capacity and on behalf of his business. Invoking the history of the American Revolution, he accused lawmakers of “trying to finish the work of King George.”
“We have complied with your unconstitutional laws for decades, and it has done nothing but feed your insatiable appetite for more gun confiscation schemes,” Leary said. “You continue to blame the most peaceful citizens for evil acts of people who ought not to be on the street. You’ve gotten away with violating your oath of office. It is time for you to comply and honor your oath.”
The National Rifle Association, one of the most influential gun owners groups in the country, targeted its opposition to a proposed expansion of the state’s “red flag” law.
The 2018 law allows a family member, a fellow household member or a local police department to ask a judge for an extreme risk protection order, which requires a legal gun owner to surrender their license and any firearms if they are deemed a threat.
Day’s bill would empower more people to seek an extreme risk protection order, adding several types of mental and physical health care providers, school administrators and employers to the list.
“This massive pool of individuals coupled with the increasing political polarization of firearms creates a scenario ripe for abuse, personal retribution and erroneous petitions,” said Justin Davis, who works as the NRA’s state director for Maine. “The Massachusetts court system is facing a severe backlog, which already causes issues processing even the most serious crimes, including murder trials, right here in Suffolk County. By opening the floodgates for unnecessary ERPO petitions, it will further bog down our judicial system, making it more difficult for judges and prosecutors to adequately address criminals in the commonwealth.”
Davis said a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Rahimi, could impact the state’s existing ERPO law because it deals with the question of whether individuals facing domestic violence protective orders still retain the constitutional right to bear arms.
Anti-violence and gun control groups, who are joined in their support of the bill by the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and several local Catholic Church dioceses, hailed the legislation as a worthy addition to gun laws that are among the strongest in the nation.
Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, described the bill as “a comprehensive response to the very complex public health crisis that is gun violence.” John Rosenthal, founder and chair of Stop Handgun Violence, called the measure “an incredibly thoughtful bill that has no inconvenience whatsoever [on] law-abiding gun owners.”
Rep. Steven Xiarhos, a Barnstable Republican and former police officer, pointed out that the legislation would prohibit carrying firearms in government buildings, schools, polling places and private residences where the owner has not given consent.
“I’m hearing a lot from constituents that if they have a license to carry, and they cannot carry in certain areas, that affects them,” Xiarhos said to Rosenthal. “So I was wondering, in your opinion, how does this bill not affect them when they can’t carry in certain areas?”
“There ought to be a right to feeling safe in our society, too, and when you go to a polling place, I think you should feel comfortable that others around you aren’t carrying firearms and you can exhibit your constitutional rights,” Rosenthal replied. “Even here in Massachusetts, the leader in the nation with the lowest gun death rate in the nation, there were still, on average, 244 gun deaths, 688 injuries [per year]. We are far from perfect around guns.”
Father Paul O’Brien, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Lawrence who addressed lawmakers via videochat, said illegal firearms are so common in his community that he believes he could have walked outside and purchased one before the hearing concluded.
“I presume that plenty of the guns that are sold on the streets of Lawrence have been stolen or gone missing, so it seems to me sensible to slightly improve the penalties involved in not reporting a lost or stolen firearm,” O’Brien said. “I presume any responsible gun owner should be eager to report a missing or stolen weapon.”
One specific area of focus in the legislation is reining in “ghost guns,” which are often made or assembled at home and lack serial numbers with which they could be traced. Law enforcement officials including Attorney General Andrea Campbell have been sounding the alarm about a sharp increase in the number of ghost guns on Massachusetts streets.
“Massachusetts law does not regulate them, because this type of technology did not exist until recently. They are quickly gaining popularity for the mere fact that they are untraceable. Many are used in the commission of violent crimes … and are clearly capable of killing a human being,” said James Driscoll, director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which is the policy arm of the archdiocese of Boston and dioceses in Fall River, Worcester and Springfield. “This [bill] brings serialization requirements to ghost guns and puts them in line with traditionally manufactured guns purchased from dealers. It is a common-sense adjustment to current law.”
Newly counting itself among bill opponents is the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. Retired Chief Mark Leahy, the group’s executive director, told lawmakers that MCOPA members voted unanimously earlier Tuesday not to support the bill in its current form.
“While one violent death is too many, this bill won’t solve that problem. If you have a problem in one Massachusetts city or another, I’d suggest focusing your attention on that location, while ensuring that other criminal violations are also suitably addressed and prosecuted there. The rest of us do not need the extra attention,” Leahy wrote in his testimony to lawmakers. “Our strict Massachusetts gun laws work. The registration of firearms will not reduce gun violence. Limiting where lawfully licensed firearms holders may go — including your off-duty police officers and state troopers — will not reduce gun violence. Criminals will not be deterred by these measures. While there is merit to addressing ghost guns, that can be handled in a stand-alone bill.”
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni voiced his support for the legislation, saying it would “make a difference for public safety in places like Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee and many cities across the Commonwealth.”
“Tired of our young folks being shot down”
In 2021, the most recent year with data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts reported 3.7 gun deaths per 100,000 residents. That was the lowest in the contiguous United States, trailing only Hawaii, which had 3.4 gun deaths per 100,000 people.
Democrats and their allies have continued to argue, however, that it is insufficient to rest on the nation-leading status, particularly with the burden of gun violence disproportionately concentrated in communities of color.
The state Department of Public Health’s most recent comprehensive death report counted 270 firearm deaths in 2020, with a roughly even split between homicides and suicides.
About 10 times as many Massachusetts men died from firearms as women in 2020, and people of color were particularly affected, the data show. Among all white, non-Hispanic residents, the rate of firearm death was 2.5 people per 100,000. For Hispanic residents, it was 5.1 people per 100,000, and for Black, non-Hispanic residents, it was 11.4 people per 100,000 — more than four times as high as white Bay Staters.
“We’re tired of our young folks being shot down, and folks from this caucus, we probably have the brunt of all the murders in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Rep. Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat who spoke in favor of the bill alongside fellow members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. “So we speak from experience and we speak from going to the funerals. We speak from going to the wakes, we speak from going to the meetings, we speak for the people who we have to mentor and go to their houses and go and try to work with them.”
Debate about the specific policy proposals was punctuated at times by harrowing personal testimony.
Jody Marchand, a Westford resident who has been outspoken about surviving domestic violence, told lawmakers about how her husband murdered their 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, and shot Jody in the head before killing himself in 2010.
“My husband was a hunter. I was used to seeing guns in the home. It didn’t faze me at all. I know it’s a sport that people like, I get it. You go to the sportsmen’s club, he was a member of two. You know, that really is okay with me, but what happened is he wanted a Glock. His friend, who was a retired police officer, purchased the Glock for me, and my husband wanted it for Christmas,” Marchand said. “So I wrapped it up, and I gave it to him as a Christmas present, and that’s what he used to murder my child.”
A quick turnaround from redraft to vote
Opponents of the bill ripped the process behind it, too.
Several representatives of gun owners groups said they had participated in an 11-stop “listening tour” Day conducted before crafting the original bill. Michael Harris, GOAL’s director of public policy, said he was originally “optimistic” about how those conversations went, only to wind up with “a feeling of betrayal” at the final product.
The first draft of the legislation (HD 4420) never received a public hearing amid a procedural spat between House Democrats and their counterparts in the Senate, who say they are working on their own gun reform bill, apparently out of public view.
Top House Democrats unveiled the new version on Thursday alongside plans for the lone public hearing and a floor vote by the end of the month.
“The fact that this bill was released with one business day to review it — one business day to review it — is an absolute sham, and whoever scheduled that should be ashamed of themselves,” said Jon Green, director of education and training for GOAL.
While GOAL leaders were addressing lawmakers, Harris pointed out that the Judiciary Committee’s top-ranking House Republican, Rep. Peter Durant of Spencer, is on the ballot Tuesday in a competitive special primary election for an open Senate seat.
Since House Democrats unveiled the original bill, Durant has been one of its most vocal critics in the Legislature.
“Forcing him to choose to be here or in his district for the race is not really awesome,” Harris said.
Senate leadership is also working to craft its own gun reform bill.
One Democrat, Rep. Christopher Markey, said he has “some concerns” about the bill and thinks it’s a “legitimate concern” to criticize its ban on carrying firearms in some spaces. But he also lamented the tenor of the debate itself.
“No one has come up and said: why is this a difficult thing? Why is it that it’s a problem? I have my own ideas of why it’s difficult, but no one has come up on the pro-Second Amendment side to say ghost guns are a problem, and for anyone to say that they’re not, they’re naive,” Markey said a bit more than two hours into the hearing. “The same thing with ERPO — there is a need to expand some degree of ERPO. You may have a legitimate issue with due process, but let’s correct them and let’s figure it out.”
“I get it. I get the idea that it’s only one business day [for review] and all that, but we’re not being productive,” the Dartmouth Democrat continued. “I’m hoping at some point, during this day, we can be productive and address those concerns.”
Rep. Aaron Saunders, a first-term Democrat from Belchertown, told his colleagues he appreciates changes made to the redraft but believes it still leaves “some questions unanswered,” particularly about how a prohibition on carrying firearms in certain spaces will or won’t apply to law enforcement.
“It appears that there is interest in addressing the proliferation of ghost guns. There is interest in updating our red flag laws to ensure that those who are truly dangerous do not have access to firearms, and certainly addressing the criminal activity of discharging firearms at buildings,” Saunders said. “Those are areas that I truly look forward to supporting, and I hope that the bill focuses in its final form on those areas.”
“I hope that we don’t rush this, that we answer those questions that have not yet been answered, even if the answers aren’t what folks may want to hear,” he added. “We should still take the time to answer them.”
State House News Service contributed to this report.