Ironically the tragic navy yard shootings in Washington, D.C. came just 48 hours after the long-awaited State House hearing on proposed changes to Massachusetts gun laws. While no single piece of legislation is going to be able to prevent such tragedies from happening again, there is room for improvement in our current laws, especially when it comes to background checks. What, if any, impact the D.C. rampage will have on changes to our own gun laws is not really known.
Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that does not require courts and state agencies to share mental health information through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The NICS registry checks available records in three databases to determine if prospective gun buyers are disqualified. Massachusetts has no statutory authority to transfer mental health records to NICS. That means this information is not available during background checks when an individual goes to buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer. While this might sound alarming, there is a lot of apprehension about delivering personal information like mental health records to a federal database. There are legitimate concerns about accurate information gathering and questions about privacy surrounding the use of that information.
At the hearing, Governor Patrick advocated for the state to contribute information to the NICS database, limit and monitor gun purchases, and increase penalties for illegal firearm possession. Mayor Menino pushed for stricter gun penalties. Parents of victims from the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting asked for the state to build on its already strong gun control laws. Second Amendment advocates spoke out against laws they felt would infringe on their rights.
The BBA’s gun study group was convened in March, 2013 and includes a diverse group of attorneys including gun owners, gun law experts, civil libertarians, a prosecutor, criminal defense attorneys, a law professor, and health law experts. The group reviewed many of the proposals now under consideration and sought comments, feedback and input from the Health Law, Criminal Law, and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Sections of the BBA. We will sit down with the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security soon to discuss some of the principles that the BBA feels can inform policy-makers about the legal implications of their legislative decisions.
In the few days since the hearing and the Navy yard shootings, the dialogue about examining gun control laws has been amplified. As to what gets accomplished, we will need to wait and see.
– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association