BOSTON — A group of House lawmakers, mostly Republicans, who are concerned with a "red flag" gun bill that House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he will call a vote on later this month are trying to refocus the debate away from firearms and onto mental health.
Rep. Joseph McKenna, a Webster Republican, wrote to Democratic leaders last week urging them to consider an alternative proposal that would create a legal structure for someone's guns to be taken away only after they have been committed for mental health treatment.
McKenna said his proposal, which was laid out in a letter to the Ways and Means Committee, would more effectively get at the root cause of suicide and mass murder that Democrats claim they are trying to address with the current "red flag," or extreme risk protective order, bill.
"If one is truly deemed an extreme risk we believe that more needs to be done than simply removing their firearms and releasing them back into society with no support or service," McKenna said in his letter.
The "red flag" bill sponsored by Rep. Majorie Decker of Cambridge would allow a family or household member to petition the courts to have an individual stripped of their rights to own or purchase a firearm if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Gun rights advocates have criticized the bill as a step too far, potentially dragging law-abiding gun owners through the court system without full due-process rights and creating a redundancy with the 2014 gun law that already allows local police chiefs to revoke someone's firearms license if they are considered a threat.
McKenna's alternative proposal would allow for someone's guns to be taken away, but only after the courts have ordered them into a mental health treatment facility. The alternative language would allow a judge, following a petition and appearance in court, to have an individual committed to a mental health facility for up to seven days for physical and psychiatric evaluation.
If mental health professionals find that the person poses an extreme public safety risk, a judge could then have that person committed for mental health treatment for six months to two years.
At that time, the court would also initiate a review by all licensing agencies of that individual's suitability to continue to hold permits, including firearms licenses, a commercial drivers license or a medical license.
By taking the focus off of guns and focusing on access to mental health treatment, McKenna said his proposal would be more effective at ensuring personal and public safety. The Department of Mental Health, the letter notes, reported in March that 93 percent of women and 78 percent of men who commit suicide do not use a firearm.
'Exactly the right vehicle'
The "red flag" bill gained momentum in the Legislature this year following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
After meeting with legislators, law enforcement and victims of gun violence, DeLeo announced last week that he would bring the Decker bill to the floor for a vote later this month, and expressed his confidence that it would pass.
DeLeo said he was willing to hear from opponents who may have ideas to improve the bill, but suggested he was not interested in straying too far from the template of the Decker bill.
"I will not allow, shall I say, or bring before the the body any bill that's really going to water down what we have here today," he said last week. "We've already been working on this legislation. I believe that it honestly will save lives, and anything that diminishes that possibility, I would not be supportive of."
McKenna told the News Service that he and Rep. David Vieira, a Falmouth Republican, met with Decker, Rep. David Linsky and Rep. Harold Naughton while the bill (H 3610) was still in the Public Safety Committee. According to McKenna, the Democrats said they supported the idea of improving access to mental health services, but did not believe the "red flag" bill was the appropriate vehicle.
"I think it's exactly the right vehicle," McKenna countered.
While he said he is "hopeful" that some elements of his proposal will be included in the Ways and Means version that goes to the floor, McKenna said he will be prepared to offer any number of amendments.
The letter and alternative proposal was sent to Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez and members of the Ways and Means Committee. It was signed by 24 House lawmakers, including five Democrats - Reps. Jonathan Zlotnik, Colleen Garry, Brian Murray, John Velis and Thomas Petrolati.
The Gun Owners Action League on Tuesday circulated McKenna's letter to its supporters, calling it a "reasoned ERPO alternative."
The next day GOAL Executive Director Jim Wallace called on the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to rescind its support for the Decker bill.
"It is beyond me why the rank and file police officers in our cities and towns are not speaking up about this," Wallace said.
"We hear news cycle after news cycle about a citizen or law enforcement officer being murdered by a killer that was previously in custody and released. However, the Chiefs of Police Associations are now supporting legislation that will enable an individual deemed an extreme public risk to walk free and potentially cause tremendous harm to law enforcement and the public."
Wallace said the "red flag" bill could potentially treat people going through a temporary crisis "very cruelly," stripping away their constitutional rights and sending them home without any mental health supports.
McKenna's proposal also calls for tax revenues from the sale of firearms and ammunition to be used to support a new Friends and Family Suicide Prevention Hotline operated by the Department of Mental Health.