In an attempt to help broker a compromise on anti-gun violence legislation, six senators who voted to strip a controversial provision from the Senate's bill regarding discretion for police chiefs to grant rifle and shotgun licenses have proposed an alternative that would restore "limited flexibility" for law enforcement in the bill.
"We are trying to find middle ground. We're not wed to it, but we think it's a good starting point," said Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat. "We aren't opposed on the Senate side to giving chiefs this flexibility but we want to see the legitimate rights of gun owners respected."
Barrett wrote a letter to the six House and Senate legislators appointed Tuesday to negotiate a compromise gun bill before the formal session ends in nine days, suggesting a new section to replace the "unacceptably vague" standards for denying a rifle license that were included in the House bill.
More than a dozen law enforcement officers, including Boston Police Commission William Evans and former Boston Commissioner Ed Davis, rallied at the State House on Tuesday to restore the House provision that they described as critical to keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who pose a threat to society.
Gun owner activists have criticized the provision as an unnecessary obstacle to lawful gun ownership that has the potential to be abused by police chiefs.
The Barrett letter was signed by Sens. Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington), Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), Barry Finegold (D-Andover), Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) and Kathleen O'Connor Ives (D-Newburyport). All six voted in favor of the Sen. Michael Moore amendment last week that removed discretion from the Senate bill.
"We favor legislating reasonable grounds for denying a hunting rifle in appropriate cases, but we want these grounds to give narrower and clearer guidance to both law enforcement and citizens. We have a substantial number of constituents who object to formulations on hunting guns that seem too careless or too rushed," the letter states.
The House gun bill proposed to give discretion to police chiefs to deny a Firearm Identification Card to someone who might not fall under the list of "prohibited persons," but has demonstrated or engaged in behavior that suggests they could be a threat to public safety. Chiefs already have such discretion in issuing handgun licenses.
The six senators, who were among the 28 that voted to strip the provision from the bill, argued the language was too broad and open to interpretation. They proposed a new section that would allow a chief to deem an applicant unsuitable if they have demonstrated that they pose a "concrete and articulable risk of harm in the reasonably near term to himself or to others."
"In an ideal world if it hadn't been so rushed we would have suggested compromise language right then and there and I think it would have passed if it had been crafted well," Barrett said of the vote to strip the discretion from the bill. "I don't think we're there yet, but we're closer."
The House and Senate on Tuesday named six members to a committee that will have a brief window to develop consensus gun legislation based on bills (H 4285/S 2284) that recently cleared the two branches. Majority Leader Ronald Mariano of Quincy and Sen. James Timilty, a Democrat from Walpole who co-chairs the Public Safety Committee, will co-chair the conference committee.
They will be joined by House division leader Rep. Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham) and Rep. George Peterson (R-Grafton) and Sens. Anthony Petruccelli (D-East Boston) and Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester).
"It's clear that the Chiefs of Police would like more authority in issuing Firearms Identification Cards, but what isn't clear right now is how that can be done without violating the rights guaranteed to our citizens under the 2nd Amendment," Timilty said in a statement after the police rally.
In appointing Petruccelli to the conference committee, Senate leaders chose one of the 10 votes against the Moore amendment. The East Boston Democrat said last week that he supports retaining discretion for police chiefs after discussing the issue with Evans.
Asked Tuesday whether he would insist on restoring discretion to the bill in conference, Petruccelli said, "I'm not going to comment on the conference committee at this time."
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat, said during the Senate's debate on the bill that the Moore amendment was critical to convincing him to support the overall legislation, which he said would help protect children from gun violence, but should do so without threatening the rights of legal, recreational gun owners.
Asked if anything should be read into Petruccelli's appointment to the conference committee, Brewer said, "I suspect you probably could," before adding, "I don't predict conference committees."
Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, of Amherst, defended his vote in favor of the Moore amendment stripping discretion for police chiefs, but would not speculate on the outcome of negotiations with the House.
"Let's see what the conference committee has to say. That's what the process is all about." Rosenberg said. "A lot of members felt that since the focus of that was on long guns, which is basically what people use for recreation and sport, that there were sufficient controls through the federal criteria and therefore it was not necessary but again the conference committee will take it up and make their decision."
Earlier in the day, Rosenberg's Amherst colleague in the House - Rep. Ellen Story - said she was stunned by the Senate vote.
"I don't understand quite what happened in the Senate process but I am hopeful and I am confident we will be able to come to some kind of compromise so that the bill can pass in its stronger form and be effective in preventing gun violence," she said.