House ramps up pressure on gun bill, Senate

By CHRIS LISINSKI and ALISON KUZNITZ

State House News Service

Published: 07-14-2023 12:33 PM

BOSTON — Representatives will gather in closed-door meetings next week to hold “candid discussions” about a 140-page gun reform bill that Speaker Ron Mariano wants to win House approval by the end of the month.

With the omnibus bill idling amid a House-Senate procedural dispute and national gun safety groups applying new pressure on legislative leaders, Mariano’s office scheduled a pair of private events for representatives and staff to talk about the proposal.

Mariano told reporters on Thursday that his goal is to win House approve for the omnibus bill (HD 4420) before lawmakers take a traditional break in August. Asked about how the House plans to navigate a procedural disagreement with the Senate that has stalled the bill’s early progress, Mariano said, “I’ll look at the different options that are at my disposal” and try to pick one.

He wouldn’t specify what those options entail.

“There are three or four of them,” Mariano said. “I’m not gonna go through them all right now.”

Rep. Michael Day, the bill’s author and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the goal of the closed-door meetings is to clarify misconceptions and confusion as gun owner advocates mount intense opposition. He said the discussions would rebut claims that the bill is a “total scrapping of the current system.”

“Time is of the essence when it comes to firearm safety and making sure we make the improvements we need in this area,” Day said in an interview following a meeting Thursday with top House Democrats, including Mariano and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz.

While multiple members of Mariano’s leadership team voiced urgency about the bill, they offered differing assessments about the timeline for action amid a spat with Senate Democrats over which committee should review the bill.

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Day, who noted there have been 13 shootings in Massachusetts so far this month including one in Mattapan earlier Thursday, told the News Service he wasn’t sure when his proposal might emerge for a hearing or hit the House floor for a vote.

Second Assistant Majority Leader Sarah Peake said the target is for the House to take up Day’s bill before lawmakers break at the end of the month.

“As good as our gun laws are, clearly they need an update, and we have a sense of urgency about this,” Peake said in an interview. “This is why we hope to get this done before we recess.”

Senate Democrats have been fairly quiet about the issue, even as Day publicly criticized them for not agreeing to send the bill to his committee. Senate President Karen Spilka said in a May 24 tweet that her chamber “is committed” to legislation updating the state’s gun laws “this session.”

Half of the House will gather Monday afternoon, and the other half will convene Tuesday morning, to hear a summary of the bill from Day and other top House Democrats.

“As we await the scheduling of a public hearing, we hope to continue soliciting feedback from the Membership,” a Mariano aide wrote in an email to representatives, acquired by the News Service, informing them of the events.

“To encourage candid discussions, we will organize the meetings by Floor Division and they will be Members only,” the aide added.

The bill stretches across a wide range of firearm-related issues, including where guns can be carried, the licensing process, the state’s existing ban on assault weapons, rising numbers of untraceable “ghost guns,” and training for gun owners.

Day filed the sweeping legislation on June 26, just more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bruen decision that forced a change to Massachusetts right-to-carry laws.

Fulfilling an assignment from Mariano, Day crafted his legislation based on input gathered in 11 listening sessions across the state and from officials such as Attorney General Andrea Campbell.

The proposal has already drawn intense criticism from gun ownership and Second Amendment groups.

Calling its message a “travel advisory,” National Association for Gun Rights on Tuesday told gun owners their rights are “at serious risk in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” and that they should consider leaving the state or halting plans to visit.

The Massachusetts-based Gun Owners Action League described the bill as a “historic attack against the entire 2A community being pushed by House Speaker Ron Mariano and Chairman Michael Day.”

“There is no telling when the Speaker may try to ram this through. Although we have been told the bill will have a hearing, we have been told a lot of things, most of which have turned out to be intentionally false,” the group wrote last week.

“The bill is so egregious that it is impossible to amend, so don’t try,” GOAL added.

It’s not clear what the next step will be for the late-filed legislation, nor when it will advance.

House and Senate Democrats cannot agree on whether the Judiciary Committee that Day co-chairs or the Public Safety Committee that has reviewed some previous gun bills should get the first pass at the proposal, leaving it in legislative limbo more than two weeks after the Stoneham Democrat filed it.

The Public Safety Committee is co-chaired by Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield and Sen. Walter Timilty of Milton.

Day called the disagreement between House and Senate members over where his bill belongs “unfortunate.”

“I’m hoping it’s not just a delay tactic and I’m hoping that we can have a process to move forward quickly with this bill,” Day said. “I hope it’s done as soon as possible. Certainly by the end of July would be optimal ... for the body and for the Legislature.”

The gun bill needed to be done “yesterday,” Rep. Jim O’Day told the News Service.

“The speaker is very concerned about what’s been happening in our commonwealth relative to gun violence, and he’s really focused on trying to remedy that,” O’Day, the House’s Fourth Division chair, said. “We really feel like our membership wants to be involved in making some changes, and we’re hoping it’s going to happen before the end of the month.”

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem said this week that gun law reforms are a “priority” for her chamber. The Public Safety Committee, which the Senate wants to review Day’s bill, “is charged with issues relating to gun safety and firearms,” she said.

As the procedural squabble drags on, influential gun safety organizations are wading in.

Representatives from Brady: United Against Gun Violence, GIFFORDS: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, Mass. Moms Demand Action, Mass. Students Demand Action, and Stop Handgun Violence wrote to Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka on Thursday urging them to find a way forward in the next few weeks.

“Gun violence continues to claim the lives of too many people in Massachusetts, as illustrated by the terrible shooting in Mattapan and so many other shootings just in the past month alone – showing the urgency of addressing this public health crisis head-on,” the groups wrote in a letter obtained by the News Service. “While we do not presume it is our role to opine on which legislative committee should ultimately have jurisdiction over [Day’s bill], given the amount of work that has been put into the bill and its broad, comprehensive approach, we strongly urge you to ensure that it receives a swift hearing before the Legislature breaks for its August recess, so that we can continue to work together and unite around holistic solutions to this urgent problem.”

Legislative leaders in both branches at times have circumvented the traditional joint committee process to bring bills to the floor more quickly or in the face of hesitation in the other chamber.

Asked about the bill’s status amid the committee disagreement, Rep. Ruth Balser, who is third division chair in Mariano’s leadership team, replied, “We’re just gonna move it forward.”

“We’re moving forward, meeting with members, talking amongst ourselves and getting behind this effort that Chairman Day has led,” Balser, a Newton Democrat.

Pressed on what moving the bill forward would like look when the branches cannot agree which committee should hold the hearing, Balser said, “We’ll see. Hopefully that will get resolved. Hopefully the Senate — they’ll see the urgency of this.”

Assistant Majority Leader Alice Peisch also described urgency to take up the bill amid the growing presence of ghost guns, which are often assembled at home and do not feature serial numbers that allow law enforcement to track them.

“When you talk about the procedural issues, it seems to me that when we are talking about a bill that’s being done in response to a United States Supreme Court decision — largely that relies on constitutional questions — you want the Judiciary Committee that has the expertise in constitutional areas to be where the bill is reviewed and vetted,” Peisch said.

Ruth Zakarian, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, spoke with House leaders as they exited Mariano’s office. She told the News Service that advocates want a hearing on Day’s bill.

“We’ve had an incredible number of shootings over the past few weeks, and it’s important that we move this forward,” Zakarian said. “We have historically done a very good job of responding to gun violence — both from a policy perspective as well as how we invest in community-based solutions — and I trust that we will continue to do that.”

Sam Doran contributed reporting.

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