BOSTON — Already known for adopting some of the country’s toughest gun control laws, Massachusetts lawmakers are debating whether to restrict firearms access even further.
Among dozens of gun control proposals set to be heard by the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on Wednesday are bipartisan bills to require universal background checks on all gun sales, ban 3-D printed weapons and “ghost guns,” further restrict large-capacity ammunition magazines, and toughen penalties for violating firearm laws.
Gun control advocates say the changes are necessary to close legal “loopholes” and cite the state’s track record of pioneering tough firearm restrictions.
“We’ve proven to be the NRA’s worst nightmare, and we can’t afford to cede any ground in this fight,” said John Rosenthal, a gun owner and founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a Beverly-based advocacy group that pushes for tighter gun control. “We’ve shown that gun laws can work without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
One proposal, filed by Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, would require private sellers to conduct a transfer or sale through a licensed firearms dealer, who would run a background check on the buyer. The bill is co-sponsored by 39 lawmakers, including Reps. Jim Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, and Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill.
Licensed gun dealers are already required by federal law to screen buyers for a criminal record, history of mental illness or other factors preventing a gun sale. But background checks aren’t required for private sales at gun shows, or between family and friends.
Gun control advocates call it a “dangerous loophole” that allows criminals and mass murderers to circumvent the process of purchasing weapons illegally.
Critics of the proposal say an extra layer of background checks complicates transactions for legitimate buyers and sellers, and would be ineffective in preventing illegal sales.
“Criminals don’t go through retailers to buy firearms, they’re getting them on the street,” said Jim Wallace of Newburyport, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association.
“This is sound-byte legislation that won’t do anything to protect public safety or reduce illegal gun sales in the state.”
State laws vary, but at least 11 states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, require background checks on private gun sales, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
A 2014 state law created an online portal for conducting background checks for private gun sales, but federal law restricts private sellers from also accessing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Gun control advocates say that means private sellers cannot check out a buyer before a sale.
Gun control proposals have gained momentum following mass shootings earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left more than 30 people dead.
In Congress, lawmakers are also debating universal background checks, but the efforts face opposition from the powerful gun lobby.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have refused to take up Democratic-backed gun control bills that passed the House and historically have opposed many efforts at tighter gun control.
President Donald Trump, a Republican, has waffled in recent days about whether he would throw his support behind expanding background checks for firearm sales.
Many of the proposals being considered by Massachusetts lawmakers seek to close what some describe as “loopholes” in current firearms laws, such as the state’s nearly 5-year-old ban on magazines containing more than 10 bullets.
Gun control advocates want to close an exemption in the 2014 law that allows large-capacity magazines made before 1994 to be “grandfathered” under the ban.
They are also pushing for a state law banning so-called “ghost guns” that can be assembled using parts manufactured on 3-D printers.
Last year, Attorney General Maura Healey issued a directive advising gun owners that plastic firearms are illegal under federal and state law because they are untraceable, do not have serial numbers, and wouldn’t require a background check to print.
But gun control advocates want lawmakers to enshrine that policy in state law.
Other proposals would require Massachusetts gun owners to obtain liability insurance and receive at least five hours of live-fire training before getting a state firearms license.
Gun rights advocates question the need for tighter restrictions, saying the state’s tougher rules haven’t reduced overall gun violence in the state.
“They’re desperate to show the country that they’re leading on this issue when, in fact, they’re failing,” Wallace said. “They’re just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it will stick.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.