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.