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Are Massachusetts Gun Laws a Model for the Country?

The state has the lowest gun death rate in the country. Congress is considering a bill that would incentivize other states to copy its firearm policies.

Ed Markey
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
(AP/Alex Brandon)
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey introduced a bill this month that would incentivize other states to adopt his state's gun laws, which advocates say have helped make Massachusetts the home of the lowest gun death rate in the country.

In 2016, 3.4 people per 100,000 died of gun violence in Massachusetts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, in slightly less-populous Tennessee, the firearms death rate was nearly five times that, at 17.3 per 100,000. 

The legislation comes in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting, which killed 17 students and teachers and fueled nationwide calls for gun control. This past weekend, more than a million Americans participated in "March for Our Lives" protests around the country.

Markey's bill would allocate $20 million in Department of Justice grants each year for the next five years to states that adopt laws like those in Massachusetts.

Most well-known is the state's ban on assault weapons, signed in 2004 by GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, who is currently running for U.S. Senate. The state also requires gun dealers to conduct background checks, mandates private sellers to verify that buyers have a valid gun license, bans “mentally defective” people from owning firearms, and requires weapons to be unloaded and locked away when not in use.

Those laws are far from common, but six states and D.C. ban assault weapons, as well as threaten criminal penalties for storing guns improperly around children. Five states let families and police remove guns from people determined to be at risk of harming themselves or others, going even further than Massachusetts' "mentally defective" statute.

Last year, Massachusetts became the first state to ban rapid-firing bump stocks after the Las Vegas shooting. At least 15 states are currently considering similar bans, and several others have tightened up restrictions already in place.

But the state's gun policy touted most by Markey is one not often mentioned in debates on gun control at the national level. It gives police chiefs the authority to deny, suspend or revoke licenses for handguns and long guns.

“The involvement of police chiefs in the licensing process is key. We can’t overstate that enough,” Markey said at a press conference about his bill earlier this month.

Gun policy experts say this part of the law has been instrumental in keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

“There are lots of cases where the police will go to a house multiple times for domestic violence, but there will be no charges or restraining order or anything,” says Jack McDevitt, who helped draft the state's gun laws as the former chair of the Massachusetts Committee to Reduce Gun Violence. “That person is not federally prohibited, but the police know this is a dangerous person. So they could turn his license application down.”

That doesn't mean police are rejecting gun applications left and right. McDevitt says 97 percent of gun license applicants in the state receive their license, suggesting that police aren't being overly restrictive about who can own a gun.

Still, gun rights groups have adamantly opposed the police-approval law in Massachusetts, arguing that it can result in law-abiding citizens losing their right to arm themselves. 

Federal courts, however, struck down a challenge to the state law that claimed it violated the Second Amendment. 

The law is a fairly unique one. Currently, only five other states and the District of Columbia have enacted a law allowing local law enforcement to approve or deny gun licenses -- California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.

The bill introduced by Markey, a Democrat, doesn't have great chances for passage. The Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to advance a bill that touts some of the strictest gun regulations in the country. The legislation will, however, bring light to Massachusetts' gun laws at a time when they are being debated in statehouses across the country.

But while Massachusetts' gun laws have had Republican support, it remains to be seen if many of these policies will be politically feasible in more conservative states. Republican politicians in Massachusetts have historically been more open to gun regulations. Charlie Baker, for instance, was the first Republican governor to join the States for Gun Safety, a multistate coalition meant to reduce gun violence and enact stricter gun regulations after the Parkland shooting. He has also come out in favor of a national ban on assault weapons.

Gun laws are not the only factor in Massachusetts’ low gun death rate. Gun ownership in the state, for instance, is low. And some states with even more restrictive gun laws -- like California -- have higher rates of gun death.

But McDevitt says the numbers speak for themselves.

“Massachusetts went from being the third-safest state to the safest state after the 2014 law,” he says. “We believe other states could benefit from this."

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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