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There Is A Gun Control Debate On Beacon Hill, But It's Taking Place Via Email

March 9, 2018

Debate over strengthening Massachusetts' already tough gun laws has been taking place among Beacon Hill lawmakers since the Florida school shootings. It's a debate the public probably won't get to see.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo hasn't decided whether to bring the issue to the floor for a vote, but House members are already trying to sway their colleagues behind the scenes in the crucial weeks before DeLeo's legislative agenda of what will and won't see the floor is drawn up.

Rep. David Linsky, a former prosecutor and active proponent of tougher gun control policies, sent an email to each member of the House and Senate, as well as their staffs, last Friday, which lead to a lengthy back-and-forth between the Natick Democrat and Republicans in the House.

At issue is whether the Legislature should act to establish Extreme Risk Protective Orders, instructions from a court that would result in a legal firearm owner having their weapons confiscated. Currently, Massachusetts law allows a local police chief to determine whether a gun owner is "suitable" to possess firearms and can rescind a gun license, but police would still need the permission of a court to enter a home to confiscate the weapon.

Linsky sent lawmakers a Washington Post editorial supporting so-called "red flag" protective order laws and urged his colleagues to consider it in Massachusetts as a way to prevent suicides. This lead to a reply-all from Rep. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) encouraging lawmakers to speak to their local police chiefs about the licensing powers already granted law enforcement.

"It happens occasionally. And it's, quite frankly, a good thing because this is obviously a controversial topic. People have differing opinions. I was able to engage in a substantive debate with knowledgeable colleagues on the other side of the issue," Linsky told WGBH News this week.

Lombardo suggested that police have the authority to "on the spot remove a firearm license and firearms from individuals that pose a threat."

Linsky responded in another email that under current law, police can only revoke a firearm license, but cannot seize a weapon without a search warrant.

Rep. Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich) then stepped in to debate, writing that police must evaluate a licence holders' suitability for a firearm when granting the license and throughout the term of the license. Hunt also defended the current police-based "red flag" system because anyone, not just a family member or close associate as defined in a bill Linsky sponsored, can approach police with concerns.

"There is no requirement to be a family member, even as broadly as you have defined that in your bill. A next-door neighbor can see a threatening Facebook post and report that information to a chief of police. And, the chief of police can use that along with other evidence in determining whether a licensee has become unsuitable to possess firearms," Hunt wrote.

"I should be clear that this is not the practice in many other states. I fully believe that a shooter, such as the one in Parkland, Florida, would not have been in possession of any firearm had the same circumstances occurred in Massachusetts," Hunt wrote.

Hunt argued that requiring family members to fill out an affidavit in court before an order could be issued slows down the process.

"That same person can go directly to a police chief and achieve the same result in less time," Hunt wrote. Linsky responded that the protective order system would work in addition to the current system, giving family members a way to contact authorities without having to go through the police.

In an op-ed he wrote for the Cape Cod Times, Hunt defended the current system and wrote that the state's hands are not tied by current law, but also agreed that a court-based extreme risk law may be called for.

In an interview with WGBH News this week, Linsky added that he sees a big loophole in the state's current police-based red flag reporting system.

"When the police suspend or revoke an individual's license to carry or FID card, the individual gets to keep his or her firearms if they file an appeal of that suspension," he said.

On top of that, Linsky said, police aren't allowed to enter a home to search for a now-illegally possessed gun without a warrant. That's why he wants risk orders to come straight from the courts.

Senate Democrats discussed risk orders behind closed doors this week. House leaders say they're still looking at the issue. If a bill is allowed to the floor, it'll already be a lock to pass. So the real debate is right now among gun control supporters and undecided lawmakers.

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