Gun Owners of America director speaks at MCLA

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NORTH ADAMS — In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting last month, gun control advocates have revived calls for legislation aimed at preventing similar slaughters.

But at a recent presentation at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a leading voice in the national gun rights community stood his ground, insisting that background checks are "a waste of money," and said he supports licensed gun owners taking matters into their own hands against "dirtbags" and "bad guys."

Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of the group Gun Owners of America, shared his views on campus recently, during a student-sponsored event.

The program, "The American Gun Phenomenon," hosted by the MCLA College Republicans and the Political Science Club, came a month after a man fatally gunned down 58 people and injured more than 500 at a country music festival in Las Vegas before killing himself.

The massacre, the worst mass shooting in contemporary United States history, prompted new efforts to pressure lawmakers to restrict Americans' access to guns through such measures as background checks and restoring the ban on semi-automatic weapons that lapsed in 2004.

Pratt, who served the Virginia House of Delegates in 1981, serves as a contrast to those positions. The Springfield, Va., resident is characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a "gun rights extremist" who "stands at the intersection of guns and Jesus, lobbying for absolutely unrestricted distribution of firearms while advocating a theocratic society based upon Old Testament civil and religious laws."

According to a report from The Beacon, MCLA's student news outlet, Emily Young, president of the Students for a Democratic Society, tried to organize a protest because of the speaker's past association of meeting with neo-Nazi groups and members of the Ku Klux Klan as a speaker at the 1992 gathering of "Christian men" in Estes Park, Colo.

But the protest did not materialize around the free event, a civil 90-minute discussion that included several thoughtful questions from the audience. A few campus public safety officers stood watch outside the Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation before the event, and later monitored the program without incident.

A college spokesperson said the public safety presence was typical for any campus event, which attracted about 40 people.

While Pratt said he would support the opening of policies to allow students and staff to carry guns on college campuses, lead event organizer Kaitlin Wright, a senior majoring in history and political science, said neither sponsoring group was looking to shift that policy.

"I hope that people leave here tonight having a more open mind about guns and ownership," she told The Eagle.

One audience member, attending from Great Barrington, identified himself as having a License to Carry, which permits the carrying of a concealed handgun.

"I carry all the time — not tonight," the audience member clarified. Massachusetts law prohibits, with the exception of law enforcement officers, the carrying of firearms on elementary, secondary and higher education campuses. The man asked Pratt whether there is more being done to allow licensed gun owners to carry a firearm across state borders.

Pratt referred to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act proposed to Congress by U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. The law would allow "a qualified individual to carry a concealed handgun into or possess a concealed handgun in another state that allows individuals to carry concealed firearms," while carrying valid identification and permits from his or her home state.

According to a report by WCVB 5 in Boston, which solicited and mapped gun ownership data obtained last month from the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, Western Massachusetts, and specifically the Berkshires, has the highest per capita rates of Class A gun ownership licenses issued in the commonwealth when compared with population figures from the 2010 U.S. Census. Peru tops this list, with nearly 30 percent of its 847 residents, and Savoy, Tyringham and Florida making the top 10 with more than 25 percent of residents carrying licenses, though the data do not indicate whether and how many of these licensed carriers own guns.

Pratt said Gun Owners of America does not lobby for changes to state law, but focuses on response to federal cases.

In response to a question from the audience, Pratt criticized Attorney General Maura Healey for her crackdown on guns and the state's ban on so-called electronic weapons like Tasers when it comes to private ownership. He called Massachusetts a "hostile environment" for gun owners and said Healey "is not the law in and of herself."

Pratt also was asked his thoughts on giving guns to people with disabilities, including mental health disabilities: "Our position has been if someone is going to lose their civil rights, let's do it in a court of law."

On the general question of how to curb gun violence in America without infringing on people's Second Amendment rights, Pratt was skeptical that any gun control efforts will be effective when dealing with the criminal mind.

"These guys are opportunists," he said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.

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