Although Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, gun safety advocates want to make them even stricter. Following the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida, Massachusetts is among a number of states considering so-called "red flag" bills.
If approved, the law would let a court temporarily prohibit someone from possessing or buying a gun if they are judged to be a risk to themselves or to others.
A 'Tool' To Save Lives, Or The 'Stripping' Of Rights
Sometimes killers send up warning flags before they act. It appears that Nikolas Cruz did before he allegedly shot and killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Cruz was known to be depressed; school authorities had warned teachers about him; the FBI had investigated a YouTube post, reportedly from Cruz, saying that he planned to be a "professional school shooter." So a red flag law might have prevented the massacre.
The NRA fiercely opposes red flag bills, and nobody knows that better than Marjorie Decker, a Democratic state representative from Cambridge who said she endured weeks of online harassment, including death threats, after filing red flag legislation.
"It was a horrible experience," Decker said during a recent evening in Cambridge, where she spoke to constituents about her bill (H.3610). "I had to involve my local police and the state police. It has not silenced me. It's actually made me a far more committed legislator in understanding the challenges to better gun ownership laws."
Decker blames the NRA and its local affiliate, the Gun Owners' Action League, for instigating the harassment, but the group denies it. Decker is pressing on, as she has since first filing the bill a year and a half ago.
“It really is about keeping people safe," Decker said.
Her bill would give family members and law enforcement the ability to go to a court and request an "extreme risk protective order," a kind of preemptive action to temporarily confiscate someone's gun.
"This law is going to empower families — who believe that someone in the home might hurt themselves or someone else — to go directly to a judge and seek an order that would quickly remove guns and ammunition and the license to carry,” Decker said.
Decker’s bill has the support of leading gun control advocates in Massachusetts, including John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence.
"This has been proposed in [many] states, including Alabama," said Rosenthal. "It's being passed in red states. So, it's just another tool to continue to make Massachusetts the state with the lowest gun death rate in the nation by giving families the tools to save their loved ones and themselves."
After the Parkland massacre, Florida became the sixth state to pass a red flag law, and just this week, Maryland became the seventh. Meanwhile, more than 20 other states are considering similar laws. It's a trend that is alarming hardcore Second Amendment advocates.
“It's a complete and total stripping away of constitutional rights," said Michael Hammond, legislative council with Gun Owners of America, who says red flag laws are simply "gun confiscation laws."
"We're very concerned that some very conservative states somehow think that sending SWAT teams to people's homes as a result of a Kafkaesque procedure is somehow a consensus proposal," Hammond added.
There's opposition on Beacon Hill, as well. Joseph McKenna, a Republican state representative from Webster, is less worried about SWAT teams — but he is opposed to taking guns out of the hands of people with mental health issues.
"I don't think that's very fair to the mental health community," said McKenna, who is drafting his own bill, backed by GOAL, that would set up a suicide prevention hotline rather than encourage court orders to confiscate guns.
"I see them as a mechanism that very unfortunately uses someone who is struggling from mental health as a reason to start going after guns alone," he said. "They don't provide services, and they don't deal with the underlying issues."
Supporters of the red flag laws — like Rosenthal of Stop Handgun Violence — say the gun lobby is using mental health as a ploy to shift the conversation away from guns.
“Every country has mentally ill people,” he said. "We just happen to be the only country that arms them with easily concealed handguns and large capacity ammunition magazines capable of mass shootings. The common denominator in shootings is the firearm."
This debate also revolves around the question: Do these laws work? One of the few studies on this comes from Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson, who looked at Connecticut, the first state to enact a red flag law back in 1999.
“I think extreme risk protection orders do reduce gun deaths," Swanson said. He points out that most gun deaths are self-inflicted. His study looked at 762 gun seizures over 14 years under the Connecticut law and estimates that for every 10 to 20 seizures, one suicide was prevented. Swanson argues that the study backs up the idea that someone who is manifestly at risk of hurting themselves or someone else should not have legal access to a gun.
"People agree with that. Gun owners agree with that," he said. "People across the political spectrum. People in the Second Amendment community have been saying for years, 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.' Well, this is a law that's about trying to figure out who those people are."
Massachusetts’ push to enact Decker's red flag law is expected get a vote in the House early next month.
This segment aired on April 13, 2018.
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