Investigation: Gun Permits Skyrocketing in Central MA
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
According to the Center for Gun Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, more than 31,000 people a year in the United States die from gunshot wounds. In addition to these deaths, the firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is twenty times greater than in other high-income countries.
These statistics, in conjunction with the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, have brought the issues of gun control, permit restriction, and mental health to the forefront. One local expert says that Massachusetts could stand to rewrite their gun laws and take a closer look at the issues surrounding gun permits.
Worcester had the highest number of permits but increased 69% over the four year period, one of the lowest increases in the number of permits issued in the region.
What’s Behind the Figures?
Jim Wallace, the executive director of Gun Owners’ Action League (GOAL) in Northborough, said there are a number of reasons behind high numbers across Central Mass.
He said that administrative permits could be adding to these figures, due to the large backlog created by previous revisions to permit laws.
“From given year to year, you’re going to see an ebb and flow from renewals,” he said.
But it’s hard to tell how many of these permits are due to government and administrative reasons.
Wallace also cited fear as one reason people have been rushing to get permits.
“People have become very afraid that the federal or state government is going to push laws that will infringe upon their rights to get guns,” he said. “There is this sweeping idea that if they’re licensed, they going to get grandfathered in.”
GOAL is responsible for educating and training individuals seeking to get gun permits, and Wallace said that the fastest growing demographic they see year after year is women.
“A lot of that came from the storms – Katrina and now Sandy. A lot of the women we’ve trained have said that they didn’t think they would ever be in a position where they couldn’t call for help,” he said. “People stealing food, water, gasoline – whatever they have. That became a really important thing for many women. Every time we run one of those training courses, it’s been full beyond capacity.”
Wallace also offered some ideas as to why Worcester’s percent of increase was not as high as those found in neighboring towns.
“The Chief in Worcester is very strict,” he said. “Even when he has been requested by lawsuit to order an individual a license, he has thumbed his nose and said ‘Well, come make me.'”
How MA Laws Stack Up
The recent shooting in neighboring Connecticut has revived many debates about gun control and laws restricting access. While numbers of permits in Central Mass have been spiking in recent years, studies show that the Bay State is at the top of the chart in terms of its laws.
SmartGunLaws.org ranked Massachusetts one of the top states for its safe laws. Among some of the criteria listed were the state’s requirement for any person who sells, rents or leases a firearm to obtain a state dealer license; a ban on most assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines, but not 50 caliber rifles; and maintaining a permanent list of registered firearms.
The ranking lauded the Commonwealth for many reasons but still had some strikes against the state.
Massachusetts does not require the reporting of mentally ill individuals to the federal database used for firearm purchaser background checks, limit the number of firearms that may be purchased at one time, or require unlicensed firearm sellers to conduct a background check on the purchaser, although they must ensure that the purchaser holds a license.
Need for Change
Despite their thoroughness, Wallace said the gun laws in Massachusetts need to be revised. For four years, Wallace has been a part of a group that is trying to separately deal with two groups involved in gun licenses – those who avidly stand up for their civil right to own and carry a gun, and those who would pose a threat to public safety.
He said the difficult part is that if you tighten laws to protect the public, you infringe on those rights, and vice versa.
“We suggested a Prohibited Persons Status. If you were ineligible to own a gun by law, you’d be on a roster. There would be no questions if an officer had to question you. There would be no excuse that your license expired,” he said.
“The problem was that the bill was so comprehensive, that the state legislature said, ‘We don’t want to handle it.’ And that’s the sad part. They have no desire to fix the laws and reform them.”
A Mental Health Issue
Wallace said that in conjunction with reforming the state laws surrounding gun control, mental health is a crucial issue.
“The mental health issue is paramount. We have to address that,” he said. “When the Wakefield murders happened, we had a meeting with then Governor [Jane] Swift to form a commission to study the mental health issue.”
He said that like the most recent tragedy, these individuals seemingly hide in our society, snap, and then become violent.
“All these issues, in every case, it’s a very disturbed individual. For some reason no one wants to stand up and say let’s take a look at this kid. We as a society – we have to be able to agree that there is a level of people who have severe mental illness, who shouldn’t even get to the point of a background check,” Wallace said.
Wallace urged the rethinking of this issue and others tied to gun control, but said that nothing can be resolved until everyone can understand the situation clearly. He spoke about a law enforcement training that was accompanied with a 400 page book.
“If law enforcement needs a 400 page book to help them understand the laws, how can we expect individuals to stand a chance,” he said.
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