Both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature have now signed off on bills that would create a new judicial process designed to temporarily take guns away from dangerous individuals.
The bill (H 4539), which the Senate approved on a voice vote Thursday, would allow family or household members to petition the courts for an extreme risk protection order (ERPO) in cases where someone poses a threat to themselves or others.
The judge’s order would suspend someone’s license to carry firearms and require that individual to temporarily surrender “firearms, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, weapons or ammunition.” Under the Senate’s bill, police would also provide information about mental health, crisis intervention, and counseling services to both the person who requested the order and the subject of it.
The so-called “red flag” bill gained momentum amid deadly school shootings. While opponents warned it infringes on gun rights, supporters said its passage is needed to safeguard lives.
Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who sponsored the original version of the bill, said she was “elated” it had passed both branches.
“I see this becoming law,” she said. “I think the differences will be easily worked out.”
Decker and Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem joined gun violence prevention activists in Senate President Harriette Chandler’s office to celebrate the vote. As supporters entered the room, they stopped to pat Decker on the shoulder, hug her, or extend thanks and congratulations.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, prior to the vote, urged colleagues to consider policy responses to address the steady drumbeat of gun violence, unrelated to school shootings, that is affecting young people in urban areas, naming Dorchester, Roxbury, Springfield, and Holyoke. Stronger laws are needed to address illegally obtained guns, Chang-Diaz said, telling her colleagues that if they think the inconvenience of limiting individuals to purchasing no more than 15 firearms a year is too much then she would invite them to join her at next funeral of teen in her district.
“If all lives matter we need more solutions that not only make our middle class families feel safer but that will actually decrease the number of shattering calls too many parents receive in our commonwealth,” Chang-Diaz said.
Creem said on the floor that “thousands of young people” in Massachusetts have called and visited lawmakers, asking them to take action to prevent school shootings. “They are demanding that we protect them from injury and death caused by firearms,” she said.
The bill would create “a new legal tool to protect the public,” according to Creem, who said it preserves due process rights by requiring a hearing on the order, allowing for an appeals process, and allowing orders to be modified based on the request of either the petitioner or the respondent.
“We’re not changing the Second Amendment,” Creem said. “We’re not doing anything drastic.”
The Gun Owners Action League, the local affiliate of the National Rifle Association, has vocally opposed the bill, this week calling it “highly problematic” legislation that “completely circumvents due process.”
During the debate, GOAL wrote on Twitter that the Senate was “voting down every amendment that would provide actual help to respondents with mental health issues, or to even have mental health professional assess respondent,” and called on Gov. Charlie Baker to return the bill to lawmakers “to be amended to provide protections for law abiding gun owners, and mental health care for those in need.”
Among other measures, GOAL objects to language in the bill that would allow judges to issue an emergency extreme risk protection order in certain circumstances, “without notice to the respondent and prior to the hearing required.”
The House voted 139-14 to pass its its version of the ERPO bill on the night of May 23, after lengthy and impassioned debate.
Responding to an April Supreme Judicial Court ruling that struck down the state’s ban on civilian ownership of stun guns, the House added into its bill language that would subject stun guns to the same licensing requirements as firearms.
The Senate instead agreed to wording that would require someone to be 21 or older and have a firearms identification card to possess a stun gun.
Sen. William Brownsberger, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said stun guns are generally non-lethal and requiring a full license to carry would take away the incentive to use them.
Janet Goldenberg, who chairs the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said the stun gun portion is the “major difference” between the branches, describing changes to the extreme risk protection order language as “primarily either technical, or corrections or improvements that I don’t foresee there being a problem with.”
She said she hoped lawmakers could iron out differences quickly without formally appointing a conference committee.
“This bill will save lives in Massachusetts,” Goldenberg said.
Because the Senate took a voice vote on the bill, the positions of individual senators were not recorded.
Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who often initiates requests for recorded votes, told the News Service he supported the bill and he believed “a majority” of the seven-man Republican caucus was supportive.
“We have added a lot of important procedural protections to this bill, and while there may be some disagreement on different elements of the bill, I think there’s consensus that we ought to have mechanisms to prevent people who pose a danger from having access to firearms, and I think that that is an indisputable proposition,” Tarr said.