IN MASSACHUSETTS, we often congratulate ourselves for having strong gun laws. And we should. Evidence shows that there are fewer gun violence fatalities here than in states with laxer laws. In 2019 and 2020, Massachusetts was rated as the state with the lowest rate of gun deaths by The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
But we must not be complacent. In 2019 alone, 247 individuals were killed with guns in Massachusetts and countless more were injured. There is a more we can and should do to guarantee public safety, to protect our children from senseless gun violence, and to minimize the potential that dangerous people will have access to dangerous guns. Without careful attention to keeping our gun laws up-to-date, mass shootings and other traumatic gun violence are not just likely in Massachusetts, they are inevitable.
Here is a proposed agenda:
Tighten the Commonwealth’s assault weapons ban. A mountain of evidence establishes that assault weapons have been used disproportionately across the country in mass shootings and in murders of law enforcement officers. They were used, for example, at Columbine, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Las Vegas, at the Pulse night club and most recently at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.
In 2014, Attorney General Maura Healy investigated the sale of assault weapons in Massachusetts and found that tens of thousands of such weapons were being sold despite a longstanding state law banning their sale. She then reminded the public, by issuing an enforcement notice, that under state law, copies and duplicates of highly lethal weapons like the AR-15 and the AK 47 are just as prohibited for sale and possession in Massachusetts as the weapons they are designed to imitate.
Unfortunately, manufacturers and retailers have responded to the attorney general’s enforcement notice by marketing other equally dangerous military-style weapons that are not covered by the state ban. Such weapons include the IWI Tavor, a gun designed for the Israeli military; the Kel-Tec Sub 2000, a powerful semi-automatic weapon designed to accept handgun magazines and ammunition; and the FNPS 90, a Belgian submachine gun designed primarily for military special forces and counter-terrorism. The Massachusetts assault weapons ban should be updated annually to include newly designed semi-automatic guns of this kind that have limited sporting use, but are instead intended for purposes identical to the previously banned weapons.
Take aim at gun hoarding. There is substantial evidence that some Massachusetts residents are hoarding guns and ammunition. Massachusetts gun registration records show that there are dozens of individuals who buy more than 10 guns each year together with thousands of rounds of ammunition. There are even some individuals who are buying a hundred or more guns on an annual basis.
The Commonwealth should limit the number of guns and the amount of ammunition Massachusetts residents can buy and store in their homes. Such limits will help prevent gun trafficking and dangerous incidents in which residents have more firepower than law enforcement. It will also help mitigate (though not eliminate) the risk that unstable individuals such as Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas mass murderer, will have vast arsenals at their disposal.
Take action on “ghost guns.” So called ghost guns are weapons, typically built by individuals rather than manufacturers, that have no serial numbers or other identifiable markings, so that they are not traceable. Several internet-based manufacturers offer receiver blanks for ghost guns (sometimes called “80 percent kits”) together with instructions on how to build a gun from them. Ghost guns have become a popular way for criminals who cannot legally buy a gun (because they cannot pass a background check) to get a lethal weapon.
Sale, possession, and use of ghost guns should be banned and criminalized by requiring serial numbers on all receivers and guns, or by redefining what a gu” is to include all partially milled receivers even if further work is required for the receiver to take the necessary parts. The Commonwealth should also enact enhanced penalties for crimes involving use of a ghost gun. In addition, internet sale of receivers that are designed to be the building block of a firearm should be prohibited by requiring that all receiver blanks for any gun be transferred to buyers only through state-licensed dealers after a background check.
Provide for enhanced safety training. Massachusetts has strong safe storage laws for guns but very few gun safety training requirements. Under current law, the Commonwealth requires far more training to get a driver’s license than to get a gun license. New gunowners can acquire dangerous weapons without ever having fired a gun and with little more than a short classroom program on the safety requirements of Massachusetts law. Regular range recertification, safety training, and a written safety test (like a learner’s permit test for new drivers) under rigorous state-mandated protocols should be a prerequisite for a gun license. In addition, gun sellers should be held responsible for the resulting accidents if they sell a gun without safety features like a loaded chamber indicator, a magazine safety disconnect, or an external manual safety to a new and untrained gun owner. Safety features and potential liability for preventable accidental shootings protects not just new gunowners and those gunowners’ families, but other members of the public as well.
According to the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, more than 135,000 guns were sold in Massachusetts in 2020. Many of those sales were to first-time gun owners. If Massachusetts wants to remain the safest state in America in terms of gun violence, the Commonwealth needs to continue to examine its firearm laws to keep them up to date, and to make them as protective as possible, consistent with the Second Amendment.
Gary Klein is a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts with responsibility for civil enforcement of gun laws. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of the attorney general’s office. Jack McDevitt is the director of the Institute on Race and Justice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. In 2014 he chaired the task force appointed by former speaker Robert DeLeo to recommend improvements to Massachusetts’ existing gun legislation.