BOSTON (SHNS/WWLP) – When James Eagan Holmes shot and killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012, one of the weapons he used was an AR-15-style rifle manufactured in Massachusetts.
The Bay State has banned civilians from purchasing or owning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for decades, but companies like Smith & Wesson, headquartered in Springfield, can still build them here and sell them elsewhere.
Backed by parents who lost children to mass shootings and the Stop Handgun Violence organization, a group of Democratic lawmakers launched an effort Tuesday to change that dynamic, filing legislation that would extend the existing assault weapon ban to cover their manufacture for civilian use as well.
The proposal drew immediate criticism from gun ownership advocates, who described it as misguided and insufficient to address underlying causes of violence.
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was killed in the Aurora shooting, said Tuesday that gun violence victims and their families have been unable to convince manufacturers to stop producing military-style weapons.
“These weapons are made in your state, but they can’t be sold in your state, so in effect, Massachusetts is exporting bloodshed to the rest of the country,” Phillips said at a virtual press conference alongside Massachusetts lawmakers. “There are no reasons other than the pleas of Americans for them to do anything to stop the carnage. Legislation is the only way.”
The bill (HD 4192 / SD 2588) filed Tuesday would prohibit Massachusetts companies such as Smith & Wesson from manufacturing assault weapons and high-capacity magazines covered under the state’s existing ban on their purchase and possession. Anything manufactured to be sold to law enforcement, the military or foreign governments would be exempt from the newly proposed ban, and handguns — which are used in a vast majority of gun violence — would not be affected.
Massachusetts first implemented a state ban on assault weapons in 1998, when a similar federal law was already in place. In 2004, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney signed a permanent ban into law shortly before the federal policy expired.
Supporters described the ability of Massachusetts companies to manufacture weapons they are banned from selling in the state as a “loophole” in the current law. Lawmakers who filed the new bill said banning the manufacture of most assault weapons would help reduce the toll of gun violence, particularly mass shootings, elsewhere in America.
“If we no longer produce and manufacture military-style assault weapons here in Massachusetts and we impact the ability for private citizens to access these weapons, we know there will be fewer mass shootings,” said Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat and one of the bill’s authors. “We know less people will die.”
Decker co-authored the bill alongside Rep. Frank Moran of Lawrence, Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton, and Rep. Bud Williams of Springfield, whose district includes Smith & Wesson’s headquarters and a manufacturing facility.
Williams forecast that he will face a wave of criticism from gun owners and groups such as the National Rifle Association for backing the proposal. He described the bill as a “common-sense approach.”
“We have a responsibility when we see something that’s not right, that’s incorrect, we need to fix it,” Williams said. “They’re going to come charging. Gun rights advocates are going to make that conversation about my right to bear arms and all that. That’s far from the truth. These assault weapons are meant, plain and simple, for war.”
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said his group opposes the latest proposal and the state’s existing ban on the purchase of assault weapons.
“We oppose the ban itself because it’s not based on anything that’s actually safety-related,” Wallace said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s more political agenda and what I call social bigotry against gun owners by people who don’t understand what’s going on.”
Wallace said he believes the Legislature should address the role of mental health in gun violence and suicides — which in 2017 accounted for 60 percent of all gun deaths nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center.
He pointed to the 2018 debate on a “red flag” risk protection gun bill that ultimately passed and earned Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature, recounting an unsuccessful push by some Republican lawmakers to focus the debate on mental health.
“The people who have been doing this are not serious about addressing the actual problem,” Wallace said. “All they want to do is pass something to ban a thing, because a thing is easy, and the human element is difficult.”
Smith & Wesson, which did not respond to an immediate request for comment, is one of the top firearm manufacturers nationwide. In the most recent financial quarter, the company reported selling more than 600,000 guns and accessories, more than double its sales a year ago, WBUR reported last week.
The lawmakers and their backers said Tuesday that it is unclear exactly how many assault weapons are produced in Massachusetts, though several used in mass shootings — including Aurora, the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California — were built in Massachusetts.
John Rosenthal, a co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said there are at least 24 known gun manufacturers in Massachusetts, including Smith & Wesson, Savage and Springfield Armory. In 2019, he said, Massachusetts companies produced more guns than any other state in the nation.
“If a gun manufacturer in Massachusetts doesn’t make military-style weapons, they’ve got nothing to worry about,” Rosenthal said about the proposed manufacturing ban.
It’s also unclear what impact the manufacturing ban would have on the state’s economy and jobs outlook, in large part because the production breakdown between assault weapons and other permissible weapons and devices is not widely known.
Asked about the chances that Smith & Wesson or another company could leave Massachusetts in response to the bill, Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, died in the Parkland shooting, replied that the focus should be on saving lives.
“It’s about saving lives and protecting people,” Oliver said. “I feel that we’re more concerned about the final destiny of the manufacturer and not the final destiny of our kids and civilians in general.”
Six other states have a ban on assault weapons similar to that in place in Massachusetts, and three of them — New Jersey, New York and California — also ban their manufacture, supporters say. During the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign, eventual Democratic nominee Jay Gonzalez called for Springfield-based Smith & Wesson to halt the manufacture of assault weapons.
The bill could emerge as the center of the first major gun control debate under House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who rose to the top position following former Speaker Robert DeLeo’s departure in December.
Decker noted that Mariano, as majority leader, played an important role in generating support for previous gun control legislation, and he recently called on Congress to follow the lead of Massachusetts and pass more restrictive national gun laws.
“Speaker DeLeo, in spite of all the pressure to act quickly to support it or to not support it, was really committed to due diligence with members and advocates,” Decker said. “That has been my experience with Speaker Mariano, that he will be committed to due diligence.”