In June, police found 36 firearms and 8,000 rounds of ammunition when they entered the apartment of a man known as a recluse. This apartment was not in Aurora, Colo., where James Holmes is being held for killing 12 people at a Batman movie. This weapons cache was found in Brookline, just blocks from three public schools.
The discovery of the weapons and how police responded is a case study of how gun laws in Massachusetts differ from most of the rest of the country.
The Case Of Richard Becker
Relatives of Richard Becker hadn’t heard from him in a month. They were worried, so they asked police in Brookline to check on him to see if he was OK. Becker lives alone in a small apartment building he owns.
Richard Becker allegedly had 36 firearms, including an UZI, an AK-47 and a Colt assault weapon popularly used by the U.S. military.
Police visited Becker and saw that he was OK, but they were later told by Becker’s cousin he might have a gun. They followed up and found Becker used to have licenses for 18 guns, but all the permits had expired. He also had two warrants out for his arrest for missing jury duty. Police arrested Becker and searched his apartment, where they found an arsenal.
Becker allegedly had 36 firearms, including an UZI, an AK-47 and a Colt assault weapon popularly used by the U.S. military. None of them were currently licensed and the assault weapons are banned in Massachusetts. Police also said they found a crate of ammunition with more than 8,000 rounds in it — 2,000 more rounds than Holmes allegedly had. Becker’s court-appointed lawyer refused to comment.
Mass. Gun Laws Among Toughest In The U.S.
Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, and the state has the lowest firearm death rate. But gun control advocates say it’s still too easy to get guns and a licensed gun owner can own as many as they want.
John Rosenthal, with Stop Handgun Violence, said, "We just make it harder for criminals to get guns and we’ve proven that gun laws work.
"The system worked in a sense if they were able to detect that this guy for one reason or another didn’t re-license and therefore that was a red flag, and you know, maybe a massacre was averted as a result of good law enforcement," he said.
But not renewing your gun permit is a civil offense, said Jim Wallace, head of the Gun Owners’ Action League. Wallace said often cities and towns drag their feet with license renewal.
Are Mass. Gun Laws Effective?
"I think it’s a great example of what a failure the gun laws are in Massachusetts and the licensing system is," Wallace said. "We certainly don’t agree with the system, period. But let’s say in this case, not knowing him, maybe this person had some harm in mind to somebody, well, if he had some expired license why did he have his guns? That’s the whole system they are not watching."
Wallace adds that since the state enacted tougher gun laws in 1998, gun ownership has fallen by 85 percent. Yet gun crimes have increased dramatically. And about once a year, someone is arrested with a stockpile of illegal weapons in Massachusetts.
Nancy Robinson, executive director of Citizens for Safety, wonders where the guns come from.
"It’s such a critical question, because it’s going to lead to the kinds of changes in the law we need and actions we can take to cut off guns to criminals," Robinson said.
Robinson said the illegal gun pipeline runs across the borders to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. In those states, you can buy an AK-47 for about $350 at a gun show. There isn’t a criminal background check requirement. Since 2004, when Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, it’s legal in many states to buy the high-powered firearm.
In Massachusetts, gun owners are licensed by their local police departments. That allowed Brookline to know Becker might have 18 guns with expired licenses and get a warrant to search his apartment. In most states, law enforcement doesn’t know who owns guns because registration isn’t required. But many say gun registration doesn’t protect anyone.
"As far as the firearms laws protecting the good people of Brookline in this case, protecting them from what?" said Massachusetts attorney Keith Langer, who specializes in firearms cases. "In what way, shape, manner or form was he manifesting a threat to anybody, including himself?"
Last week, Becker was released on $5,000 bail and put under house arrest with a GPS monitor. He’s allowed one visit to his elderly father at a nearby nursing home. He’s unemployed and can only leave his house for errands. He has no record of mental health problems. But Becker’s father told police that utilities to the house had been shut off. And Becker owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in back property taxes on the three-unit apartment building. His next court date is in September.
This program aired on July 25, 2012.