A Smith and Wesson handgun for sale at Carson Gun in Carson City, NV - image - Brian Bahouth

In the turbulent wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, lawmakers in neighboring Massachusetts passed a package of ground-breaking gun control laws in 2014. The laws provide a framework for the regulation of gun ownership and with vigorous debate, continue to evolve today. When asked if the laws have worked, Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence simply said, “Massachusetts has the lowest firearm homicide rate in the nation.”

For details on Massachusetts gun law, we spoke with Ruth Zakarin in this edition of the Wild Hare podcast.

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To purchase and possess a firearm in Massachusetts, residents 15 years and older must have a firearm license. Municipal police departments issue the licenses in consort with the state. In support of local police, the state operates the Firearms Records Bureau, a central repository for gun licenses, firearm sales and transfers and other gun registration data. Every gun sold in Massachusetts is registered with the state at the time of sale or resale. The Records Bureau also maintains the roster of approved firearms, which does not include assault weapons, which have been banned in the commonwealth since the mid-1990s.

The state’s mental health agency is also involved in the decision to issue a Firearm Identification Card (FID). A gun safety class is required for an FID, and sometimes, an in-person interview is necessary. All out of state individuals who wish to purchase a gun in Massachusetts must have a one-on-one interview with a police official as part of the licensing process. I asked Ruth Zakarin for an overview of the laws passed in 2014.

“A number of things are aspects of that package. One is that we have really built a framework for overall regulation of firearms, as well as ensuring that folks who shouldn’t have access to them will not have access to them. Some of the essential components were passed in 2014. All firearms in Massachusetts have to be registered at purchase at the time of purchase, initially, as well as secondary purchases or when they change hands so that at no point should a gun disappear in going from person to person.”

Along with a locally issued FID, an individual can obtain what is known as a License to Carry. An LTC permits “the purchase, possession, transportation, and carrying of all large- and non-large-capacity handguns, rifles, shotguns, and feeding devices, as well as ammunition. This is the only license that allows the carrying of concealed handguns-either loaded or unloaded.” Ruth Zakarin says the locally issued FID and other “suitability clauses” like the LTC are central to the state’s gun law reforms.

“You have to go to your local police department. Your local police department has to approve you getting that FID card, and if they have concerns, because they know, and this is a huge piece of Massachusetts’ legislation which we refer to it as a suitability clause. Even if you’ve never been arrested for something but the police have been called to your home many times because of domestic violence or because of disturbances because of mental health issues, the local police department can deny you an FID card, if they’re concerned about your risk around having guns. I think what’s important about that is because when we talked about a national process of licensing, the thing that’s tricky about that is, you actually lose the ability for local police departments who know their residents to have involvement with making those decisions.”

Not surprisingly, the suite of Massachusetts gun laws have had to withstand legal challenges and have been found to be consistent with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Zakarin says they’ve worked to make sure citizens know that the new laws are not intended to impinge on citizens’ Second Amendment rights.

“I think it’s important to remember that Massachusetts laws have not been deemed unconstitutional or incompatible with the Second Amendment. Even though they have been challenged, none of them has been overturned. I think that that’s an important point, both in terms of the substance of what we’re doing, as well as public perception. We really try to use language that makes folks understand that we’re not doing anything here in Massachusetts that is trying to repeal the Second Amendment or is even in direct opposition to the wording of the Second Amendment. It’s all been upheld whenever somebody has challenged it.”

In the halls of congress, in the White House and in every state legislature, opposition to tighter gun control laws has the financial and political backing of the National Rifle Association. During the 2016 election fight over ballot question 1 in Nevada, the NRA funneled millions of dollars into the political action committee (PAC) called,  NRA – Nevadans for Freedom. Question 1 would have enacted a system of enhanced background checks, and it passed a vote of the people by a narrow 1 percent majority out of more than a million votes cast.

And even though Question 1 passed, then Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt deemed the new system of background checks for all gun sales and transfers “unenforceable.”  In Massachusetts, an NRA-funded group known as the Gun Owners Action League or GOAL has a strong presence in the Massachusetts state house. When asked to describe political opposition to the 2014 suite of laws, Zakarin says not all gun owners are against the reforms.

“We have many gun owners, and not just in Massachusetts, but around the country who have guns because they hunt or have guns because they feel that they want to have some protection in their home, but actually have no issue with strengthening gun laws in general. And that actually could probably describe the majority of gun owners. That being said, there is a minority of gun owners who feel differently and feel that anything that impinges on their ability to acquire and keep guns feels like a major problem. Yes, there are folks who still argue about the wisdom or the intent of these laws, and you’re always going to have that, but 2014 is already five years ago, and so this has just become kind of a norm in Massachusetts. This is how we do things.”

In Nevada, the National Rifle Association has spent millions of dollars on political activities in recent years. Nevada Capital News tallied NRA and subsidiary group campaign spending since 2012 and found three NRA-related groups that are used to funnel money into Nevada politics: the NRA Institute, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, and the NRA Political Victory Fund. The total for all three groups, both cash and in-kind contributions from 2012 to the present is $6,445,084.91.

During the 2016 campaign in opposition to Question 1, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action funneled a little over 6 million dollars $6,050,000.00 through the political action committee (PAC) known as NRA – Nevadans for Freedom. The PAC has an address in Fairfax, Virginia and was the primary conduit for anti-Question 1 money.

Since 2012, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action has dropped $83,000.00 on the Nevada Republican State Leadership Committee. This is the way NRA money often anonymously trickles down into various campaign coffers. The NRA – Political Victory Fund contributes directly to candidates, a list that includes mostly Republicans and a few Democrats. Since 2012, the Victory Fund has spent $43,250.00 on direct contributions to candidates and a smattering of PACs, to include the Morning in Nevada PAC.

During the 2019 Nevada legislative session, a Democratic governor with Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature passed legislation within days of the beginning of the biennial session that would implement identical expanded background checks as laid out in the “unenforceable” Question 1. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed the bill into law following a dramatic joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly judiciary committees.

The 2019 legislature also passed an extreme risk prevention order or red flag law, one of a dozen states to do so including Massachusetts. Red flag laws enable family members and select others to petition a court to remove an individual’s firearms if they believe a relative is intending to do harm to themselves or others with a gun.

The new gun laws in Nevada met fierce opposition but were given pointed political power behind the emotional testimony of Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, a survivor of the nation’s most deadly mass shooting, the October 1, 2017 incident where a lone gunman rained more than 1,000 shots into a concert from a Las Vegas hotel room. For Ruth Zakarin in Massachusetts, Sandy Hook was the political tipping point, and the shooting at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland Florida added political umph to gun control efforts.

“So the coalition came together shortly after Sandy Hook happened. When the coalition came together, the idea was to try to strengthen gun laws here in Massachusetts, to attempt to prevent what happened in Newtown from happening here. That was a pretty profound moment in time, where I think folks had some more political will and some energy to make things happen.

“At the time that the coalition came together and started having a stronger presence at the statehouse to work on this agenda, folks found that arm of the NRA that’s here in Massachusetts, they’re called GOAL or the Gun Owners Action League, and they did have a strong presence at the statehouse, so we decided we were going to have a strong presence at the statehouse too.

“I do feel like that was the tipping point when people saw these young children being killed. Folks started to understand that there were ways that we could prevent this from happening. Folks got on board with trying to prevent it from happening, so I feel like that was a real moment in time. Another moment in time was certainly Parkland, which helps with some other more recent legislation. Because the folks at that point, were really energized to do something around these issues. Unfortunately, change often comes about because of tragedy, and I really wish it didn’t take these tragic events in order for change to happen.”

The heart of the Massachusetts gun laws is a close connection to people on the ground, local police making direct contact with gun owners, sometimes eye-to-eye. Zakarin is looking for the federal government to enact a gun control law that sets a high standard for gun ownership but also empowers and supports  local authorities to manage the licensing of gun owners in a way the faraway federal government cannot.

“Ultimately, who are the ones who are going to know that someone is at risk. Those are the folks that we need to empower and give support to be able to take those steps to address their safety concerns. So I think being able to, especially when in smaller communities where police chiefs or staff of police departments really get to know their communities, they’re going to know who’s out there, who’s really struggling in the world or being threatening to others.

“I can also tell you from the perspective of domestic violence having done this work for a very long time, a lot of survivors of violence don’t necessarily get restraining orders or press charges against their abusers, because it may not be safe for them to do so often taking that step ends up escalating risk. But those police departments still know what’s going on because they’ve been called to that home. So they can take a step on behalf of a survivor that may not be safe for the survivor to take. Again, I just don’t want to lose that really local community-based intervention. I really want the feds to set the sort of standard for our commitment to gun violence prevention and then still empowering enough to give resources to local communities to do what they need to do.”

Zakarin said she been spending more time in rural Massachusetts listening to gun owners and their concerns and suggestions, but other than the NRA-funded members of GOAL, Zakarin says the opposition to tighter gun control laws has not been angry.

“I don’t feel like there’s been this overall angry backlash against what we’re doing. It’s really centralized on those folks who would be unhappy with any regulation on guns no matter what it was, because that’s who they are in the world.”

Are the laws working?

“We have the lowest rate of firearm homicide in the country. I think that one sentence kind of says it all.

“The caveat I want to give to that is, what we see in Massachusetts is we’re still having too many people dying on the streets of our urban neighborhoods. Urban gun violence is still really tricky. It’s also hard to legislate your way out of urban gun violence. It’s something that we have really taken on as a coalition, to be much more intentional to look at what we can do as an umbrella organization as folks who do have a presence at the State House with decision makers to elevate the issue of urban gun violence and help support creative solutions to that.”

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