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Split decision New gun-control push sure to spark debate in state

  • <br/>Chris Murray, the assistant store manager at Sam's in Hadley in the Sporting goods department.<br/>
  • <br/>Chris Murray, the assistant store manager at Sam's in Hadley in the Sporting goods department showing how the lock works on a Shotgun.<br/>
  • Gun sold at Sam's in Hadley in the Sporting goods department.<br/>
  • <br/>Twenty gauge double barrel shot gun sold at Sam's in Hadley.
  • <br/>Muzzle loader or primitive arms rifle sold at Sam's in Hadley.
  • <br/>Muzzle loader or primitive arms rifle sold at Sam's in Hadley.
  • <br/>Twenty gauge double barrel shot gun sold at Sam's in Hadley.
  • <br/>Twenty gauge double barrel shot gun sold at Sam's in Hadley.
  • The lock on the trigger of a shotgun sold in he Sporting goods department at Sams.  It is state law that guns sold or stored must be locked  and be kept in  a locked compartment. <br/>

Massachusetts has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws, including an assault weapons ban. But area lawmakers and their constituents hold mixed views about whether more laws will reduce gun violence.

“There are some interesting issues, obviously, in terms of public safety,” said state Rep. John W. Scibak, D-South Hadley. “I’m curious to see what’s going to happen.”

Several firearms bills have been put forward by lawmakers in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, which left 26 students and educators dead, though two separate packages — by state Rep. David P. Linsky, D-Natick, and Gov. Deval Patrick — are stirring the most public debate about whether more gun reforms are necessary.

The same kinds of questions are being asked in Washington, where talks on banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are at center stage.

“What I’ve found is that most responsible, legal gun owners are in favor of some reasonable restrictions, and in favor of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals,” said Linsky, a former prosecutor in Middlesex County. “We need a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence.”

Linsky’s bill would require gun owners to obtain liability insurance, and for all large-capacity weapons and grandfathered assault weapons to be stored at gun clubs or target ranges, no longer in homes.

The bill would require all applicants for gun licenses to sign a waiver of mental health records for review and impose a 25-percent sales tax on ammunition, firearms, shotguns and rifles (up from 6.25 percent). The money would fund firearms licensing, police training, mental health and victims’ services.

In addition, Linsky’s bill would limit gun buyers to one firearm purchase per month and bring Massachusetts into compliance with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Courts would be required to transmit mental health records for inclusion in a national registry, which states use for background checks before issuing gun licenses. The bill also would require live shooting as part of a basic firearms safety course, which is not a requirement today.

The measures have found general support from some lawmakers, but they are getting critical reviews elsewhere. Some lawmakers and gun owners say they overreach and are an emotional response to December’s mass shootings in Newtown, Conn.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said he has heard from a large number of constituents concerned about Linsky’s bill, many of whom feel the legislation is unfairly targeting law-abiding and responsible gun owners.

“They are really raising questions like ‘Why should we be taxed more?’ and ‘Why liability insurance?’” Kulik said. “I think his approach is to make gun ownership so expensive that there will be less gun owners. I do have trouble with that approach.”

Other lawmakers fully support Linsky’s bill, as well as aspects of the governor’s proposals. State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, said she is intrigued by the idea of requiring proof of liability insurance for possession of a firearm, which she described as “brilliant.”

“One of the many things I like about Linsky’s bill is the innovative idea of getting the private sector involved,” Story said. “I’m extremely supportive.”

Linsky said the liability insurance component to his bill would help reduce negligent acts involving firearms, such as accidents resulting from improper storage, for example. He noted that about 10 states are considering similar insurance measures and that even the National Rifle Association offers the benefit to its members along with expanded coverage through private insurance companies.

“The marketplace can very effectively reduce accidents as it has with car accidents,” Linsky said. “The incentive, of course, would be safer use and ownership of firearms.”

Governor’s reforms

In addition to Linsky’s bill, the governor in January filed gun-safety legislation, some aspects of which mirror Linsky’s proposals. The governor’s bill would enhance background checks on gun buyers, reduce access to high-powered rounds of ammunition, which Congress is exploring, and create new firearms crimes and tougher penalties.

Patrick also is including in the next fiscal budget $5 million more for mental health programs that he says have the greatest impact on public safety.

“Mental illness is a disease that can be treated, and our communities are safer when the appropriate services and supports are available for people in need,” Patrick said when he announced the funding.

Linsky, who has worked on gun-violence prevention for decades, describes his legislation as a comprehensive and “common sense” effort to reduce all types of gun violence as well as suicides.

In crafting the bill, he said he heard from gun owners, military veterans, nurses, parents, hunters, former teachers, police officers and criminologists, among other professionals.

“There are 32,000 firearms deaths a year in the U.S. and most of them are preventable,” he said. “When you compare the U.S. statistics to other countries in the world, it’s embarrassing, and it’s wrong.”

Linsky said he expects some combination of provisions in his bill and the governor’s will likely gain support in the Legislature, though not all of the measures.

The proposed legislation is expected to get rigorous scrutiny when lawmakers take it up later this year, said state Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R-Westfield.

“I think that probably the worst way to legislate is when there are high emotions driving change,” said Knapik. He maintains that Massachusetts already has some of the most stringent gun laws in the 50 states.

“The question becomes, ‘How much further do we go?” he said. “We have a lot of sportsmen in western Massachusetts, a lot of law-abiding citizens, a lot of people who hold the Second Amendment dear. Do the proposals that have been put out there get to the heart of anything?”

Knapik said he believes state lawmakers will become more dispassionate in time as they debate the many firearm-related proposals in committees.

“There needs to be absolute documentation and absolute understanding of what the problem is in Massachusetts,” he said.

Troubling statistics

James Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League (GOAL) in Massachusetts, says the reforms proposed by Linsky and Patrick would not make people safer. He points to the state’s increase in gun violence since the state last passed gun control measures 15 years ago. Citing FBI and state data, the Boston Globe reported earlier this month that gunshot injuries, aggravated assaults and robberies involving guns and murders committed with firearms have all risen in Massachusetts, in some cases dramatically, since the state’s last approved major gun law reforms in 1998.

At the same time, the state has seen a dramatic drop in the number of licensed gun owners — hundreds of thousands — during that time.

“A lot of people are so concerned about being a gun owner because the laws are so convoluted, they don’t know what’s expected of them,” Wallace said. He said the Linsky and Patrick bills “actually make it worse.”

The organization has long fought for legislation that would target criminals or others prohibited from gun ownership by preventing them from getting access to guns. It has also submitted its own firearms legislation.

Its members also have raised questions about the role of violent video games in the lives of troubled and potentially violent young people, as well as the treatment of depression in teenagers and adolescents.

Conway Police Chief Kenneth D. Ouimette said he finds many aspects of Linsky’s bill “troublesome,” but sees some good points. A firearms instructor and past president of the Conway Sportsman’s Club, he said he supports live shooting as a requirement in basic firearms training and has always questioned why there was no live shooting in the state’s hunter education program.

“You make them much more safety-conscious,” Ouimette said.

He also said he favors more firearms education, particularly at a young age. “You have to break the mystique of the gun,” he said.

Others who handle or sell guns say are supportive of enhanced background checks and don’t understand why they aren’t universal in the country.

“I don’t understand why anyone would disagree,” said Brad Borofsky, president of Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters in Hadley and Brattleboro, Vt., which sells rifles and shotguns. “If you’re going to have background checks, it shouldn’t just be in retail stores.”

Borofsky said he’s hopeful some kind of compromise can be reached regarding the proposed legislation in terms of both enhancing public safety and maintaining Second Amendment rights.

“I can understand the gun enthusiasts are frustrated, and I understand the people who are scared and frustrated about the lack of progress,” he said.

Scibak said he supports any legislation that seeks to close loopholes in gun registration, and said lawmakers also should be examining access to firearms and the state’s enforcement record regarding laws already on the books.

“Are we enforcing them to the full extent that we should be?” he said.

One proposal that is getting pushback from gun advocates is a requirement in Linsky’s bill that all large-capacity firearms and grandfathered assault weapons (those manufactured before Sept. 13, 1994) be stored at gun clubs or target ranges and no longer in private homes.

“They are not going to be used at the home, so let’s get them out of the house,” Linsky said.

He said the legislation would allow for a one-year phase-in of storage facilities, though critics of the measure say it would be expensive, requiring 24-hour security, and it would raise access issues.

“They’re not armories,” said Jan Dizard, an Amherst College professor and hunter who has written on guns in America. “It’s just not practical.”

Dizard said lawmakers must be careful when crafting laws regarding the release of mental health records because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to identifying potentially violent gun owners and there are privacy issues at stake.

Apart from the high rate of firearms deaths involving suicides, most of the gun violence problem in America, he said, comes in the form of homicides and domestic assaults. Many of these crimes, he said, don’t typically involve a mental illness diagnosis. He noted that predicting whether someone might engage in a mass shooting is impossible.

“People’s lives and circumstances change,” Dizard said. “You can’t have everybody being examined every week to see if they are competent to possess a handgun.”

Dizard said he believes gun storage laws have gone a long way to reducing accidental shootings and is in favor of a more effective reporting system that would include people who have been involuntarily institutionalized or determined to pose a danger to themselves or others.

“I think that knowledge should be made available,” he said.

Others, like Story, of Amherst, said because the purchase of a gun is a voluntary act, allowing a review of mental health records should be a condition for those seeking firearms licenses.

“It’s not like everybody who sees a psychiatrist is going to be in a database somewhere,” she said.

Staff writer Kristin Palpini contributed to this story.

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Rep. Kulik needs to be more forceful in opposing the bill filed by Rep. Linsky calling for liability insurance for gun owners. My homeowners insurance is fine, as a law-abiding firearms owner I don't need to pay more to keep my shotgun. Is Rep. Linsky using this issue to run for Middlesex County district attorney?

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