Years after tragedy, status quo on machine guns
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NORTHAMPTON — When lawmakers take up proposed gun legislation this year, they’ll be revisiting the statute regulating the handling and use of machine guns in the commonwealth.
Several bills, including those pushed by the governor as well as gun advocates, seek new language to clarify and regulate who can handle and use machine guns — and under what conditions.
This section of the law came into the public spotlight in 2008 when an 8-year-old Connecticut boy accidently shot and killed himself with a machine gun at a firearms exhibition in Westfield.
Christopher K. Bizilj died when the 9 mm Micro Uzi he was firing at the Westfield Sportsman’s Club recoiled. The boy shot himself in the head under the supervision of a 15-year-old boy as his father stood reaching for a camera, authorities determined.
Confusion over the state’s law regarding machine guns and gun expos became apparent in an ensuing trial in which former Pelham Police Chief Edward Fleury, who organized the event, was acquitted in 2011 on charges of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of furnishing a machine gun to a minor.
Charges were dropped against two Connecticut men who had machine gun licenses and brought the Uzi and other automatic weapons to the firearms exhibition. The Sportsman’s Club settled criminal allegations with a $1,000 fine and $10,000 in donations to children’s charities. The club also settled a lawsuit filed by Christopher’s parents for about $700,000 in 2010.
Despite competing interpretations of the law relating to machine gun use, nothing changed on the state books. Attempts to better define the law by some lawmakers, the governor and a state gun association died in the Legislature.
At the time of the gun expo trial, Fleury’s attorney argued that there’s an exemption in state law that allows minors to shoot certain automatic weapons if they’re supervised by someone with a firearms license. Prosecutors countered by saying that exemption doesn’t apply to machines guns.
Meaning of a word
Massachusetts state law prohibits anyone from “furnishing” a machine gun or ammunition to anyone under age 18, though at the time of the gun expo trial, there was debate on the meaning of the term “furnishing.”
“It’s a very difficult law to understand,” said James Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League in Northborough. “The courts couldn’t really determine what the laws meant.”
While legislators wrangled with bills addressing this aspect of the law, Connecticut state lawmakers approved a machine gun and assault weapons ban for children six months after Christopher’s death. The law bans anyone under age 16 from handling or firing machine guns or assault weapons.
It also prohibits people from giving or transferring machine guns to youths “in target shooting, at a firing or shooting range, or for any other purpose.” At the time, Connecticut lawmakers said the ban clarified what had been an unclear law regarding children and machine gun use.
Now, several bills have been introduced and re-introduced in Massachusetts that would address machine gun use. Gov. Deval Patrick’s gun reforms would prevent the “furnishing” of a machine gun to anyone under age 21, while GOAL has again introduced proposals that would prohibit anyone under 18 from handling or using a machine gun, and require those 18 and over to do so under the direct supervision of someone with a machine gun license, which few possess.
Machine guns, or automatic firearms, are not so rare in the United States. According to a 2007 report by the Small Arms Survey, a leading international source of information on small arms based in Geneva, Americans owned four times as many automatic and semiautomatic rifles as the U.S. Army.
In a more stringent proposal put forth by state Rep. David P. Linsky, no one other than a licensed machine gun operator wold be able to handle a machine gun. Linksy, among other lawmakers interviewed, said he believes there will be more support for clarifying the laws on handling and use of machine guns, not only in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but also because the proposals come amid more comprehensive gun law reforms.
“What will make it pass this time is that a majority of the American people are demanding it,” Linsky said of the gun reform proposals. “You’re going to see some action on it.”
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.