By Shira Schoenberg; The Springfield Republican; May 23, 2018
The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would allow a judge to confiscate someone’s gun if the person poses a danger to themselves or others.
“This is about saving people’s lives and making sure there’s that intervention,” said Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, who sponsored the bill.
The bill passed in a 139-14 vote after hours of debate and closed-door discussions.
Under the bill, a family or household member could petition a district court judge for an “extreme risk protection order” barring a licensed gun owner from possessing their gun or ammunition for up to a year. The judge would hold a full evidentiary hearing within 10 days of an order being granted to give the person a chance to respond and to decide whether to extend the order.
Supporters of the bill say it will save lives by preventing someone in crisis from harming themselves or someone else. Critics of the bill say it will not help someone with mental illness, and it will infringe of people’s civil liberties.
“We take their weapons away, then send them on their way,” said Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich. “What do you think is going to happen?”
Massachusetts already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and one of the lowest rates of gun deaths.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said it “makes a lot of sense” to let a spouse who sees danger signs have that person’s gun taken away. “You don’t want a person in that particular state of mind at that particular time to be having a firearm which can cause harm to themselves or others,” DeLeo said.
Police chiefs do have discretion to deny a gun license if they believe someone is unsuitable. But Rep. Harold Naughton, D-Clinton, chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said that is not sufficient.
“Often times, local police chiefs do not have intimate information that goes on in a household that could cause a family member to doubt the ability of their loved one to possess, safely, firearms,” Naughton said.
The bill was the subject of a strong push by gun control advocates in the wake of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Janet Goldenberg, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said the bill will address suicides and homicides. Goldenberg said two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, and suicide is often impulsive. In addition, people who are in a vulnerable moment may end up becoming mass shooters. “This is a bill that lets family members who know their loved ones the best have the opportunity to intervene before it’s too late,” Goldenberg said.
Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, chairman of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight and the sponsor of an earlier version of the extreme risk gun bill, said people cannot continue to accept gun violence “as the new norm.”
“If we can save one life by enacting this legislation then it’s worth it,” Linsky said.
The Gun Owners Action League, Massachusetts’ gun rights lobby, opposes the bill. GOAL says the policy would violate the rights of gun owners without doing any good, since it would let a judge confiscate someone’s guns without ensuring that the person gets any mental health treatment.
“It’s no longer about suicide prevention, it’s a gun confiscation bill,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of GOAL.
Gun rights advocates have said the state should focus on treating people’s mental health problems, rather than confiscating their guns.
Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, R-Southwick, proposed an amendment requiring anyone who is the subject of an extreme risk protective order to get a mental health evaluation and receive state-run counseling.
Although the bill would require the court to give the subject of a protective order information about mental health resources, Boldyga said, “I believe providing someone deemed dangerous and suicidal with a trifold pamphlet isn’t going far enough.”
Other House Republicans agreed that if someone is suicidal or in danger of hurting others, the person needs the state to provide mental health counseling, rather than just confiscate their guns. “We’re quick to go after someone’s fundamental constitutional rights, but not so quick to act when problems may exist,” said Rep. Paul Frost, R-Auburn.
Naughton argued that mandating counseling would enhance stigmatization of mental health issues. Some House Democrats said the issue is about violence, not mental health. They said lawmakers are dealing with mental health in other bills, including the state budget.
Boldyga’s amendment was voted down 42-109, mostly along party lines.
Similarly, Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, introduced an amendment to require a court that issues an extreme risk protective order to use an existing process to pursue emergency restraint and hospitalization for the person.
“If someone is such an extreme risk that they pose a risk to our children, they post a risk to blowing up a school, blowing up a Boston Marathon, blowing up a federal building. … Let’s make sure we use the tools at our discretion,” Norfolk said.
Naughton said emergency hospitalization is “too big a cudgel to use” and would not be appropriate in every incident, such as in cases of alcoholism or domestic abuse.
Dooley’s amendment was rejected 34-116.
Attempts by Rep. Joseph McKenna, R-Webster, to tighten the legal standards to make it harder for a judge to grant a protective order were also rejected.
Similar laws establishing extreme risk protection orders have passed in Connecticut, California, Oregon and Washington.
The bill must still be passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker before it becomes law. Baker, a Republican, has not taken a position but has signaled that he is open to the idea.
The bill would also establish the same licensing procedures for stun guns as for other firearms, after a Supreme Judicial Court decision struck down Massachusetts’ ban on possessing stun guns. Under the decision, Massachusetts has until June 17 to develop regulations for stun guns. Otherwise, they will be allowed to be sold on the open market with no restrictions.
“What the Supreme Court and what the SJC said is that stun guns are incredibly dangerous and they need to be regulated,” Linsky said. “This puts them in the same regulation as other dangerous items like shotguns and like rifles.”
Lawmakers were scheduled to begin their House session at 1 p.m., but they spent most of the afternoon talking behind closed doors, only beginning debate on amendments after 5 p.m. The final vote came after 8:30 p.m.
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