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On Massachusetts gun law reform, lawmakers in search of common ground

Advocates and lobbyists milled outside the Massachusetts Senate chamber and chatted with senators, including Jamie Eldridge (right), during debate on a firearm reforms package, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.
Sam Doran
Advocates and lobbyists milled outside the Massachusetts Senate chamber and chatted with senators, including Jamie Eldridge (right), during debate on a firearm reforms package, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

The Massachusetts Senate held a nine-hour session last week, debating a gun reform proposal that aims to rein in so-called ghost guns and prohibit devices that convert semi-automatic firearms into fully automatic ones.

An example of those devices involved an anecdote from Springfield police, which bill author Cynthia Creem shared with the Senate. State House News Service reporter Chris Lisinski said stories like that could sway lawmakers.

Chris Lisinksi, SHNS: It's definitely the kind of example that was high on lawmakers' minds as they waded through this bill. This bill had a lot of different sections targeting different areas of gun violence and the gun industry. But these Glock switches — or auto-sear (they're known by several different names) — have really emerged as something that's concerning a lot of policy makers and public safety officials, Sen. Creem said.

Springfield police reported a 75% increase in the number of shell casings recovered at crime scenes this year, reflecting just how many more bullets are allegedly being fired as a result of these switches that allow firearms to fire more rapidly.

We heard a very similar story from Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan during the bill's rollout who said that, even compared to just a few years ago, there are many, many more shell casings at crime scenes than public safety officials are used to seeing. So definitely an anecdote that really captures something that is top of mind.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: And Sen. John Velis of Westfield wanted to send a clear message to repeat offenders in his amendment to the gun reform bill. He said his amendment tells criminals that if they're released after a violent or gun offense and then re-offend, they'll be detained until their trial. Now that that passed with bipartisan support, Chris, what are some of the other proposals that senators attached to the original bill?

Yeah, another change that senators made on the floor would create a new crime for firing a gun at a police officer, punishable by up to five years in prison. Other amendments would change the text to create basically a grandfather clause to a codified version of the state's assault weapons ban. The lack of a grandfather clause in the original bill text was a point of concern that several lawmakers, especially Republicans, had raised during debate and.

And it was concerning for many legal gun owners in the state, apparently, as well. So, what comes next for this gun bill and the House-passed version from the fall?

As is so often the case, we expect this to go into closed-door conference committee negotiations, where a small team of hand-selected representatives and senators will basically try to hash out some kind of a compromise they can bring back for an up-or-down vote to send it to Gov. Healey.

That's always a tricky process — but especially given how heated the debate on this is and how much back and forth sniping between the House and Senate we saw over the process to advance these bills. That's looming as a particularly contentious set of negotiations.

Moving on, Gov. Healey has a plan to divert gaming revenues to patch a budget gap in next year's spending plan. But state gambling regulators oppose this. Why do they say it's not a great idea? And is that likely to convince lawmakers?

Yeah, gaming regulators are a little bit concerned by this, because the money that they bring in is already designated for a whole bunch of different things around the state. Money automatically flows into the state's long-term savings account, debt reduction, as well as things like public health and supporting local communities.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission signaled at its most recent meeting that members there don't really like this proposal from Healey, wish it wasn't in the budget, and they'll have a chance [to share that]. The Ways and Means Committees up here on Beacon Hill are going to be holding a series of hearings in the next couple of months to weigh feedback about the budget, expect gaming regulators to make their case directly to lawmakers to spike this idea this week.

There's a big Beacon Hill deadline coming. At the end of the day Wednesday, we'll know which bills will remain in play in the Legislature for the rest of the term and which ones are going to be sent to wither away in study orders. What should we be watching for, Chris?

Yeah, a good way to think about this deadline is really that it's a way to figure out what is officially off the table, rather than what is definitely going to advance. Bills that are still in the mix might still die by the time the session wraps up this summer. They might just die sitting in ways and means without a vote. But this will be a really significant winnowing of the field and give us a glimpse at what kinds of topics Legislative leaders still just don't have any appetite to take up.

And they're winnowing from a pile of, what, more than 3,000 bills?

Oh, yeah, it's I think it's even more than that! It might be more than 5,000 that are filed every two-year term. So the options are plentiful. We'll have our eyes peeled on some of the most high-profile bills. You think of things like the Safe Communities Act (H. 2288 filed by Rep. Ruth Balser and S. 1510 from Sen. James Eldridge). This will be a sign of if they're still in the mix for the next five-ish months of the terms, or if their fate is already sealed at this point.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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