Is Warren Tolman Going Squishy On Guns?

Maura Healey seems to think so.

Warren Tolman, in his campaign for Attorney General, has placed front and center his plan to mandate that all new firearms sold in Massachusetts include technology to prevent unauthorized people from firing them. Now, his opponent Maura Healey claims he has flip-flopped on the issue, or at least started to talk out of both sides of his mouth. Tolman’s campaign insists he hasn’t changed at all. Who’s right?

My best attempt at refereeing this dispute is that Tolman has been consistent about his position, but does seem to be talking more defensively about it, leading in at least one instance to misstating his position.

To back up a bit: Tolman has touted this mandate since he entered the race last fall. He claims that the Attorney General has the power to do this under its existing regulatory power, without new legislation. Healey has been dubious of this, as am I. Certainly an attempt to do it would launch a legal challenge, which Tolman has seemed eager to take on; his state convention speech made much of his willingness to take on the National Rifle Association (NRA).

In a videotaped interview with the Lowell Sun editorial board, Tolman used the phrase “some new guns” in an exchange about the policy, rather than “all new guns,” and seemed to agree with the suggestion that the policy would be voluntary rather than mandatory. Healey has jumped on this; the Tolman campaign says that regardless of any poor wording or misunderstanding in that interview, his policy is to mandate the technology for all new guns sold in the state.

The Healey campaign points to other recent Tolman comments as a pattern—for example in Watertown, where he reportedly said “I’m not trying to take anyone’s gun away, I just want to make the technology available.” Similarly, Tolman has said, in the Lowell interview and elsewhere, that he wants to get guns with the technology onto the market (ie, “available”) as an option for customers, to see whether they will opt for it or not—quite a different implication from mandating to force the technology onto the market.

But all of that can also be seen as acknowledging the reality of the policy’s limitations. Even assuming Tolman is right that he has the power to do this at all, gun buyers would have the option to purchase used and second-hand guns, which would not be required to be retrofitted for resale—or to pop across the nearest state border to buy guns without the extra device (and cost).

More importantly, the idea of creating a market is particularly important to the eventual widespread adoption of the technology—because to this point, the lack of a viable US market has greatly stymied the development of products. Gun manufacturers don’t make models with the technology. Companies that make and sell adaptive devices, such as Identilock and Intelligun, lack the capital investment and the consumer market they need to make their products better, and available for more gun models.

I think that Tolman understands all of this. I also suspect that when he is talking to a more progressive audience—like the state convention delegates—he emphasizes the tough-talk mandate aspect, and when he talks to a more gun-friendly audience he emphasizes the softer, consumer-choice aspect. And sometimes he might misspeak or leave a wrong impression as he does so.

That’s not a venal sin as I see it, although it does suggest that the reality of his signature proposal is not quite as hard-line, stick-it-to-the-NRA as he often likes to portray.

As an aside, I have written in the past about the importance of this technology, and the absurd resistance to it of the gun rights crowd. There is one reason only for standing in its way, and that is the loss of sales for gun makers and retailers. You see, about 200,000 guns a year—mostly handguns—are stolen from owners every year in the US because of their value on the black market. Replacing those stolen guns makes up a decent chunk of the roughly 2 million handgun sales in the country each year. Those sales wouldn’t happen if guns were usable only by the owners, and were thus of no value on the black market.


  • CircusMcGurkus

    What is a venal sin? I had to look up venal; according to Webster’s it means, “willing to do dishonest things in return for money” and goes on to describe the word as being easily bribed. And I think perhaps this IS a venal sin if such a thing exists. Whatever benefit there may be to the “smartgun technology” – and I do not doubt that there is some – the technology is not and cannot be an entire policy regarding gun violence UNLESS maybe someone is paying a candidate to speak only about not only the technology but mandating the technology. Except maybe not really. Depending on the audience.

    The state’s lead civil prosecutor acts as the conscience of the people – protecting folks from scams and ensuring fair utility rates and fighting for civil rights for those whose voices never seem to get heard on their own. This person is entrusted to be consistent in order for anyone to feel confident in any settlement or litigation s/he pursues.

    Changing tacks based on the listener is not an attribute for an AG. Tolman is not a bad guy, but he’s also not qualified to be a chief litigator when he has no experience litigating. His claims to have “taken on big tobacco and won” but that is not true. He was engaged in a settlement that was gutted and provides none of the benefits it intended and last I checked big tobacco is just fine. The AG should not “take on” organizations or industries with abandon; lawsuits are not set up to “take on” individuals or corporations or agencies or organizations but to address a specific harm via a law or common law claim available for this purpose. AGs should have the interests of residents (rather than personal battles) at the heart of everything they do.

    We have LOTS of safety regulations here related to firearms. I have no doubt that they are part of the reason we have relatively low numbers for death and injury due to firearms. But that is of no solace to grieving mothers and desperate neighborhoods and shattered souls doing long sentences in prison. I do not understand how “smartguns” will affect these issues.

    We know who smokes and we know by and large who is killed by firearm violence. There’s a lot of overlap. “Getting” or “going after” the corporations and organizations is not the answer. Education, opportunity, holistic programs, drug treatment, and even meaningful property development utilizing data on how poor neighborhoods perpetuate and poor people never seem to get out of poverty to give folks a chance to do so will all go a long way to reducing smoking and addressing gun violence (and no it is not stupid to put these two on an equal plane as they both kill unnecessarily, have far reaching collateral consequences and infect poor neighborhoods disproportionately).

    Smart guns and huge corporate settlements are not the answer to these complex and entrenched problems.

    So, Tolman DID flip flop and it’s not clear why; he IS talking out of both sides of his mouth and I have no idea if these are mortal sins or venial sins or even venal sins but they are not qualities I am looking for in an attorney general.

  • wfcollins

    “…or to pop across the nearest state border to buy guns without the extra device (and cost).” One cannot legally go to another state to buy any gun unless it is transferred through a federally licensed firearm dealer in the buyer’s state of residence. It must be shipped from a federally licensed firearm dealer. I am guessing that will prevent the author’s intended escape clause from the proposed law.

    The gun owners that I know are not opposed to smart guns being offered for sale. They are opposed to them being mandated. The most common thread I hear is “When police agencies routinely buy smart guns for their officers and trust their reliability, then we can talk”. I am a technical expert in the RFID / near field RF technology space. There are numerous concerns around reliably detecting the presence of the owner of the weapon. There are even more concerns around how easily the weapon can be either disabled or the technology circumvented.

    Our resistance is not absurd. It is much more plausible that your knowledge of the state of the technology is lacking.

  • Andrei Radulescu-Banu

    Nice analysis, David. Did you find any relaxing in the smart gun mandate, or any instances of misspeaking before the poll was taken on July 9th?

    It would also be good for Maura Healey’s clips to identify the authorship clearly on Youtube, rather than rely on the Boston Magazine to make the association.

  • ProPeople

    It’s a mandate. It’s available for purchase. Now it’s a mandate again: David, are you still wondering if he’s going squishy on guns? I’m beginning to think that the guy’s just not a straight shooter.