BOSTON— A bill to close out the fiscal 2017 books has been jammed amid disagreement between the branches over how to ban rapid-fire devices for guns, and when senators held a hearing on the issue Wednesday only one person testified — a House member who prefers the Senate’s approach.
“I like the Senate’s language,” said Rep. Donald Berthiaume Jr., a Spencer Republican. Describing himself as an “avid shooter,” Berthiaume said the House approach to banning bump stocks was “very vague.”
Before their notorious connection to the largest mass shooting in the nation’s modern history, bump stocks were little known devices that allow a shooter to use the recoil of a semiautomatic rifle to fire more rapidly. Multiple bump stocks were found in the hotel room from which Stephen Paddock sprayed bullets into concertgoers in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 before killing himself.
The House adopted language in its fiscal 2017 closeout budget to outlaw and criminalize possession of any device “except a magazine, that is designed to increase the rate of discharge of the rifle,” or the modification of a gun “with the intent to increase its rate of discharge.”
The Senate opted to specifically outlaw and criminalize unauthorized possession of bump stocks and trigger cranks, categorizing them as machine guns. The Senate ban would give owners of trigger cranks and bump stocks three months to come into compliance, while the House bill allows six months for owners to dispose of the devices or sell them out of state.
James Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, did not testify but later reiterated his preference for the Senate’s approach, warning that the House language is so broad it could criminalize gun maintenance.
“It seems like we have two choices here,” Wallace told reporters. “We have a train that’s gone down the tracks. So, we have one choice, which is the House bill that’ll actually put people in prison for cleaning their gun, or we have language from the Senate that’s very concise and clear and while a lot of our members still don’t support it, at least it’s very concise as to what it does.”
Under the House language, cleaning the bolt action on a hunting rifle could be construed as a crime, according to Wallace, who said he did not see a point in testifying before the senators.
“There’s really no sense in me testifying about what’s already happened,” Wallace said.
There is widespread agreement in the Legislature that bump stocks should be banned, and Gov. Charlie Baker said he would sign a ban into law.
House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez expressed frustration Tuesday with the pace of work on the bill, accusing senators of causing an “unnecessary delay” on legislation that includes funding to quell youth violence and gives people with criminal records the opportunities to work in the casino industry.
“There’s been a lot of press conferences in this building this week and lot of podium banging and at the same time we have pieces that are stuck that address a lot of those things that people are talking about and the clock is ticking to close these books right now,” Sánchez told the News Service.
Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate Judiciary chairman who organized a lengthy press conference on criminal justice reform last week – held just outside Sánchez’s office – while the Senate was in session and before the Senate took up the closeout budget, said he appreciates working with the Jamaica Plain Democrat.
“I have the highest regard for Chairman Sánchez and appreciate the partnership we have trying to move legislation forward together,” Brownsberger told the News Service.
Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat and Senate chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said disagreement over how to ban bump stocks could have been resolved before the House passed its version of the closeout budget.
“I think this is an issue that had to be addressed but they addressed it first in the House with very little input from us,” Moore told the News Service. “Communication could have been established beforehand, and maybe there was, but obviously there was no agreement on the language because we went forward with a version that I think is much tighter.”
Both branches rapidly adopted bump stock proposals last week without first holding a public hearing on the idea. As is the case with the current spending bill, lawmakers often use appropriations bills to attach policy proposals because they are confident that spending bills will reach the governor’s desk.
The hearing Wednesday on legislation that has already passed the House and Senate was a departure from protocol. Senators said they thought it was important to move swiftly to ban bump stocks by attaching a rider to the closeout budget but also wanted to give the public a chance to weigh in on the issue.
The hearing was organized by Moore and Sens. Michael Brady, Michael Rush and Brownsberger – three Democrats on the Public Safety Committee – also attended.
“I’m just disappointed that more people didn’t show up today, especially after the tragedy that took place in Las Vegas,” Moore said after the hearing. “This is a piece of equipment that no one’s heard of before. I would have thought there would have been more people to come in and provide input.”
After passing their bump stock proposal, senators last week publicly mentioned plans to hold a public hearing. Moore’s office on Monday issued a media advisory about the hearing, which was not posted on the Legislature’s website.