Committee Sets Sights On Gun Law Reform, But Gun Owners Say They Are Being Unfairly Targeted

Fifty-eight gun-reform bills were filed to help curb violence in Massachusetts.

Photo via Steve Annear

Photo by Steve Annear

Hundreds of people packed a State House hearing room on Beacon Hill on Friday to listen to 58 proposed gun-reform changes, ranging from a repeal on the ban of assault weapons to stricter punishments for illegal gun carriers.

The hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, the fifth of its kind in a series of meet-ups with people from communities all around the state, was held to discuss changes to various gun-related laws aimed at curbing violence and illegal firearms sales.

“By and large these meetings have been deliberate … and respectful on both sides [of the argument],” said Committee Chairman State Representative Harold Naughton, D-Acton. “The goal is to craft a [larger] piece of legislation that will positively affect the lives of people all over the Commonwealth.”

Proposals heard Friday included reforms on background checks, both a prohibition of military-style assault weapons and a repeal of the current ban, and mental health background checks for those trying to purchase guns.

Mayor Tom Menino and Governor Deval Patrick testified at Friday’s hearing, where the room was filled with a mix of people donning National Rifle Association hats, and stickers, and those holding signs that read “Stop Gun Violence.”

Menino specifically supported legislation that would strengthen background checks on gun sales, and create stronger penalties for gun-related crimes. “Here in Massachusetts, we can do better, and improve our laws without infringing on the second amendment. This has nothing to do with gun control, and everything to do with crime control,” Menino said, to scoffs and laughter from gun owners in the crowd.

Prior to the hearing, gun owners gathered on the steps of the State House holding signs and waving flags to stand against serious reform that they claimed would impede their second amendment rights as citizens of the Commonwealth.

Ian Watson, of Boston, agreed that there should be stricter penalties for people who carry stolen weapons, however, he was against any reform that would make “responsible” gun owners the target of those stricter gun laws, through registration reform, and bans on the sales of certain guns. “We have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation already,” he said, holding a sign that read “It’s the Constitution … Stupid.”

Watson, a registered gun owner and member of the Gun Owners’ Action League (GOAL), said some of the proposed reforms are attacking the people who are participating in society responsibly, that also happen to own weapons legally. “They are being unfairly targeted,” he said.

Other members of GOAL and the National Rifle Association joined Watson outside.

John Harty said his concern was that proposals being backed by Menino and Patrick “aren’t going to do anything to stop criminals …. We need more commonsense laws,” he said.

State Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton, understood the need for holding illegal owners and criminals accountable for their actions, and implementing stricter penalties, but also didn’t want to pass reforms that would impede a gun owner’s right to bear arms. “I believe we have a right to own and possess firearms in the Commonwealth, and I will be testifying primarily on the complete rewrite on the licensing [portion] of the state law,” said Peterson, prior to the hearing. “As a gun owner … I do not want anyone to be on the end of gun violence, but restricting the rights of myself or others is not going to be the answer.”

Peterson filed roughly 18 bills that were scheduled for consideration on Friday, including a repeal of the ban on certain types of weapons in Massachusetts.

But his main focus was making sure gun owners aren’t singled out, and criminals are the ones who pay for their actions. “For some reason, people who have not used firearms in an appropriate fashion go through the court system, get a slap on the wrist, and go back on the streets,” he said. “What we need to do is find out who is using [these guns], where are they getting them from, and how can we stop them,” he said.