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Mass. Gun Control Debate Seeks Common Ground On Mental Health

BOSTON — This week, several proposals to strengthen Massachusetts gun regulations are popping up on Beacon Hill.

On Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick refiled proposals that have failed to pass through the Legislature in the past. And on Friday, Rep. David Linsky, of Natick, is filing his legislation.

We caught up with Linksy and Jim Wallace, the executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, to talk about some of the issues being put on the table.

Jim Wallace: We need major reforms so that citizens can actually understand what’s expected of them as a lawful gun owner and then prosecutors can understand what they are able to do. And unfortunately, they need to be sorted out to the point where we’re dealing with what we call “prohibited persons” rather than wasting a whole lot of effort on the lawful citizens.

Bob Oakes: What do you mean by that, “prohibited persons”?

Wallace: One of the things that really bothered us a number of years ago when we had meetings with public safety officials was, I asked the public safety officials, “Can you tell me how many people applied for a license in the last couple of years and got it?” And they said, “Sure, we can give you those numbers.” And I said, “Can you tell me how many people have applied for a license and were denied and why they were denied.” And they said, “No, we don’t keep any of that information.” So we’re spending millions of dollars tracking the good guys who have licenses, but we’re not really spending any money tracking the bad guys.

How do we keep guns out of hands of people who should not have them, Rep. Linksy?

Rep. David Linsky: Well, we need to give the licensing authority, which in Massachusetts is the local police chief, greater discretion in denying applications. So I need to give them some more discretion in assessing a person’s ability to handle a gun safely, any mental health history that person has had, their training, their experience. And they just don’t have that kind of a discretion right now. If people want the guns, they get the guns.

How do you get a police chief information on the mental health status of someone when doctors aren’t forced to disclose that kind of information and neither are patients?

Linksy: I’m going to require, if my bill becomes law, that you number one, sign a waiver of your mental health records and number two, you disclose to the licensing authority who has those mental health records. If you don’t want to disclose your mental health records, then don’t apply for a gun license. That’s how we solve that.

Jim, what’s your take on that?

Wallace: The problem is the discretion has already been so widely abused by some police chiefs across the state that licensed gun owners in Massachusetts are not likely to support any further intrusion.

Even the mental health background check?

Wallace: Well because it’s been abused. And their fear is that if you open it up to even more discretion, it’s going to be even more widely abused.

There is definitely a bar that we should be able to agree on that if you’re diagnosed with “X” or above, or however you want to categorize that, you shouldn’t have access to firearms or anything else that could be a harm to yourself or others. The problem is, do we open Pandora’s box on the mental health issues and just allow carte blanche access to all of that?

But do you think there’s common ground on that issue somewhere? It sounds like you’re saying there might be common ground, but I don’t know what it is at the present time.

Wallace: The mental health issue has really been just pushed aside. There’s really no treatment programs for a lot of mental health. And what does exist, I’ve had people within the industry that say, “Jim, they go to outpatient facilities, they get drugged up to the max and thrown out the door.”

Linksy: Well, I would agree, certainly, that we have an inadequate mental health system here in the United States. We really do. And this is probably the thorniest issue in trying to prevent gun violence. That’s why in addition to looking at the issue of mental health aspect, I’m looking at issues of access to weapons and storage of weapons.

So how else to restrict access, then?

Linsky: I’m filing a bill that would require that assault weapons and large-capacity rifles are stored not at a person’s house. If a person has them and they want to use them for target shooting at the range, then keep in secure locked facility at the range.

Give me a number. How many bullets is one bullet too many that a rifle can hold?

Linsky: The standard magazines that come with those is usually around 10. I don’t see reason why, in today’s society on the streets, you need a magazine that holds more than 10.

Jim Wallace, why does any gun owner need more than 10 rounds?

Wallace: I have to say that one of the most frightening things that people ask me is, “Why do you need?” As a citizen, especially in Massachusetts, who’s had to go through the wringer to become a lawfully licensed gun owner, I would say, “Why do you need to take it away from me?”

As far as I’m concerned, as long as I’m using it lawfully, and I’m not harming anybody, then what’s the problem? The problem is in the hands of criminals, not in the hands of lawful citizens.

But what do you say to members of a very concerned public who say, “Gosh, the least we can do is take a magazine that holds 30 slugs or more out of hands of a criminal or a potential criminal, since in some cases, we don’t know who the criminal is until the person commits the act”?

Wallace: Well, the idea would be to actually take any kind of weapon away from those people. You hate to get into argument, but how many rounds is OK for a psychopath? Ten rounds, seven rounds, five rounds, two rounds?

Linsky: I want to remember that we’re trying to prevent gun tragedies here. And tragedies just aren’t crimes. They’re accidental shootings, they are accidental discharges, they’re suicides. All the statistics really show it is more likely to have a suicide or an accidental discharge in home than it is to ever, ever use one of those weapons on an intruder or in self-defense.

You also want to require gun owners to purchase liability insurance. What’s the point of that? Isn’t that just going to make it more expensive for gun owners to buy and own a weapon just so that there will be fewer sales?

Linsky: No. That’s not what it’s about. What’s really behind that is, it’s getting insurance companies involved in gun safety to have a role in seeing how guns are manufactured, how guns are stored, how guns are kept in houses, what types of guns, what types of ammunition.

How much is it going to cost?

Linsky: I’m talking to people from the industry and it could be as little as $50 a year.

Jim, your view on liability insurance?

Wallace: To bring insurance companies in on a civil right in Massachusetts or anywhere else, frankly, is just unacceptable. I mean, I’ve dealt with insurance companies and I’ve got friends that are agents. The first thing they do when something happens is try to deny your coverage. So, I’m not exactly sure they’re the ones to tell us how to do things safely or manufacture things safely.

So is there common ground here? I mean, I do hear both of you agreeing that it would be a great thing if we could somehow cut down on gun violence across America, but not necessarily a lot of agreement at this table on the specifics of how to go about doing that.

Wallace: Well, I think certainly one of the things we need to work on and we have talked about is going to be the mental health issue. I think there’s going to be a lot of conversations in the next couple months as to how we address that and to what extent we allow the government to intrude into our private affairs.

Linsky: Yeah, we do certainly have to fix the mental health system, but we can’t just stop there. We need to make it tougher to get a firearm in Massachusetts and we need to make sure that certain types of firearms don’t have a place in people’s houses.

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