The sight of uniformed police chiefs in attendance at a public rally on the state’s gun control legislation Tuesday in Boston provided a powerful reminder of a fact that gets overlooked in the passionate debate about gun violence in America -- the men and women who are on the front lines in the fight to keep people safe support stricter regulations on guns.
When a gunman is shooting up a grade school, a college campus, a place of business, or threatening to kill a partner in a domestic dispute, the cops will be coming, not a paper-pusher from the National Rifle Association. It’s the police officer whose life is on the line when facing a bloody or potentially bloody situation that would not have arisen if guns were not so prevalent in America.
The police chiefs joined gun control advocates Tuesday to protest the state Senate’s decision to water down an otherwise sound gun violence bill by removing a provision designed to keep rifles and shotguns away from those who shouldn’t have them. The police chiefs currently have discretion on whether or not to issue a firearms identification card to an applicant seeking a handgun who they deem to be unsuitable. The disputed provision would simply extend this discretion to rifles and shotguns. After all, as Wellesley Police Chief Terry Cunningham observed at Tuesday’s press conference, "Are people really going to be any less dead if they’re killed with a rifle or a shotgun than a handgun?"
The gun violence bill passed handily in the House with the provision intact but the NRA apparently took an interest when the legislation went to the Senate and sent its top New England lobbyist over to Beacon Hill to lean on lawmakers.
The ability of police chiefs to deny a handgun license has not been found to violate the Constitution, so why would an identical provision extended to rifles and shotguns violate it? Jim Wallace, the executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, told reporters Tuesday that the police chiefs have abused their discretion regarding handguns but it is more likely that they have succeeded in averting potential gun mayhem. A poll in last Sunday’s Boston Globe indicated that support for gun control legislation remains strong in the state so there is no political risk in supporting it.
Six state senators, including Pittsfield Democrat Benjamin Downing, who normally back gun control measures but voted to remove the provision, offered a compromise giving the chiefs authority to deny a firearms identification card using what they describe as a narrower legal standard that would presumably be less susceptible to challenge. "We think it is a more targeted way of getting at what is a broadly shared goal," said Senator Downing in The Boston Globe. The House saw no reason to nit-pick the provision, nor should the Senate, and the House conferees should hold the line.
Police chiefs occasionally descend on Washington, D.C. to support gun violence legislation, most recently following the Newtown, Connecticut child massacres. There they are ignored by the alleged law-and-order tough guys of Congress who are in fact the allies of gun-toting criminals and madmen all across America. In contrast, Boston has traditionally listened to the police chiefs on gun issues, and that shouldn’t change now. The gun control bill on Beacon Hill should be passed by the Senate and sent to Governor Patrick with the provision giving police chiefs additional discretion restored.