NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 14, 2013

Anti-violence group wraps up work on new study

By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

---- — BOSTON -- The head of a gun violence task force that will make policy recommendations said Friday that he hopes for unanimity in the group and said efforts to limit gun violence in Massachusetts should be judged against the success of other industrialized nations.

“We may have moved to a place where our comparison shouldn’t be other states, but maybe we want to look at other industrialized countries, and where our rate of gun violence is 3.2 percent, in other industrialized countries it’s 1.4 percent,” Jack McDevitt, chairman of the task force, told a small group of reporters Friday afternoon. “There’s ways we can continue to make inroads into reducing gun violence.”

The Dec. 14, 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. renewed the sometimes caustic debate on gun policy in Massachusetts and other states. Lawmakers have proposed a variety of gun law changes, but no single proposal has gathered momentum.

McDevitt said the task force – which held its last information-gathering meeting Friday and plans to have the report written before January – made no effort to wrap up its work in conjunction with the anniversary and said he decided to brief the news media because the issue has garnered interest.

“It wasn’t around Newtown,” McDevitt said.

Stop Handgun Violence founder John Rosenthal said his group put up a new billboard Friday at its site near Fenway Park, which will display the projected number of gun deaths in the United States since Sandy Hook, beginning at 32,833.

Rosenthal told the News Service the number is based on the 30-year-average and may be “conservative.” In 2010, the latest year of Center for Disease Control data, there were about 11,000 gun murders, 19,000 suicides and 1,200 accidental gun deaths.

“I’m waiting to read the report like everybody else. I’m hopeful but not optimistic,” Rosenthal said, about the task force. “I just have a sense that the Legislature is going to not enact meaningful improvements to our already very effective gun laws.”

Rep. Hank Naughton, a Clinton Democrat and House chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, has the various gun bills in his committee and plans to release legislation supported by the committee, though the panel is waiting on the task force to complete its report.

McDevitt said he had seen the legislation Naughton is developing, which has not been released from committee, and said the task force includes gun owners and people who want to limit gun access and he will attempt to bring both sides to agreement on all the recommendations.

“I’ve never met with them so I really don’t have much to base an opinion on,” said Gun Owners Action League Executive Director Jim Wallace, when asked about the task force. He told the News Service a board member of GOAL spoke with the task force for less than an hour in September.

Wallace said the gun laws in Massachusetts need to “reflect and respect the rights of lawful gun owners,” deal with the criminals themselves and address mental health. GOAL is “fully supportive” of complying with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, Wallace said.

The system collects data on people who have been involuntarily committed to an institution for use in gun sale background checks. Wallace said a NICS compliance law is on the books in Massachusetts but there are some technical problems with the language so data is not being exchanged.

McDevitt discussed a need he heard from police officials to focus services not only on youth who have become involved in violence, but also their families, which he said are often “dysfunctional.” He said gun owners have described a re-licensure process that drags out “too long,” so that gun owners are technically not in legal possession of firearms while they await license renewal.

The local police chiefs throughout Massachusetts have “discretion” regarding whether to issue a resident a license to carry, required for handgun ownership, and firearm identification cards are also granted through the local police, said McDevitt.

“That’s very different from a lot of other states,” said McDevitt, who is director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University. He said the task force heard complaints that there is not a standard process for licensure, and the idea came up to “improve gun safety courses.”

School officials have also requested recommendations for how to proceed in the rare and harrowing instances of gun violence at a school, said McDevitt, who said there have been varying recommendations to install metal detectors, evacuate buildings during an incident or “shelter in place.”

“It’s a rare event that has a huge impact on all of us,” McDevitt said.

The use of mental health diagnoses in permitting someone to possess a firearm has been a focus of discussion within the task force, McDevitt said previously.

“There’s probably no credible research that says there’s an increased gun violence use by people who are mentally ill,” McDevitt said. He also said many people said gun violence needs to be reduced in a way that won’t discourage people from seeking treatment for mental illness.

Marylou Sudders, a mental health expert and member of the task force, told Fox 25 Friday morning that the state needs to comply with federal standards for reporting people who should not have access to guns, and there should be “a community conversation to help children be safe in schools” and identify youth who might be “isolated.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo noted the Newtown shootings anniversary in a statement released as the task force held its final information-gathering meeting – where they met with gun dealers and parents of children with mental health issues.

“Now that almost a year has passed since the unthinkable gun violence committed in Newtown, Connecticut, I am proud that we are poised to take action and address these types of horrific crimes in a comprehensive manner,” said DeLeo, who just returned from a trip to Israel, in a statement. “I look forward to receiving the group’s report.”

The House and Senate don’t meet again in formal sessions to act on major bills until January.

While McDevitt is looking for yardsticks overseas, he said Massachusetts has a good record compared to the 49 other states.

“Massachusetts is doing really, really well vis-a-vis other states,” McDevitt said, noting the state has the third lowest rate of gun ownership – the first being Hawaii – the second lowest rate of gun deaths, a low number of gun suicides and a homicide rate that is 2.5 times lower than the country as a whole, though he said the gun violence is still “way too high.” McDevitt said reducing the number of lawfully owned guns in the state is not an aim of the task force.

As McDevitt seeks consensus and unanimous support on a raft of recommendations, he said the gun debate “goes to extremes really quickly” and the “vast majority” of lawful, responsible gun owners feel maligned by the way the conversation is framed.

“They feel that some of this debate from the gun control side really demonizes them,” McDevitt said.

Asked whether the task force has considered limits on the types of firearm hardware available in the state, or limiting the number of firearms that can be sold – an idea backed by Gov. Deval Patrick – McDevitt said the group had “looked at” both those ideas.

Naughton, his Senate co-chairman James Timilty, a Walpole Democrat, and Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, a North Attleborough Republican, will hold a listening session on gun violence in North Attleborough Monday evening.

On Friday afternoon, news media reported a shooting that injured two people at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo.

Boston Mayor-elect Marty Walsh, who was grazed in a 1990 shooting, plans on Saturday to join Congressman John Tierney and others, including Rep. David Linsky, who has proposed a package of new gun laws, for a gathering on Boston Common followed by a remembrance of Newtown at the First Church Boston.

Rosenthal, who testified before the task force, said legislation should include “the ability for the secretary of public safety to include copycat assault weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 used at Sandy Hook to the list of banned weapons.”

Rosenthal said the Colt AR-15 was among the 19 guns banned by name not function in 2004, and he said he agrees with the effort to make private gun sales take place at gun stores. Rosenthal said private gun dealers can sell up to four guns per year from their private collection to people with licenses.

“Over 32,000 more Americans have died from gun violence since the Sandy Hook massacre; that includes eight kids every day; the equivalent of a Sandy Hook massacre every three days. Congress has done nothing except take more money from the gun industry,” said Rosenthal. “Urban industrial Massachusetts has the most comprehensive gun laws in the nation and the lowest firearm fatality rate per 100,000 population, except for Hawaii. We are a model for the nation. Our Legislature should continue that trend by making it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns. I’m gun owner. There must be background checks for all private gun sales. We must include adjudicated mentally ill health records in the gun database.”