Our Opinion: Better gun data for better gun policy

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Massachusetts has strict gun laws but if they can be strengthened or fine-tuned, or if other ways can be found to address the problem of gun violence, the effort should be made. That is the premise behind a bill on Beacon Hill to better collect and correlate data to shape better policy.

The bill would require the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to compile a report every other year on the sources of firearms used in crimes, data on gun purchases, and the effectiveness of measures to report and locate lost and stolen guns, according to the State House News Service. Under a 2014 law, Massachusetts already collects data on guns used in crimes and this bill calls for the inclusion of that information along with the expanded information. Senate majority leader Cynthia Creem of Newton said at a gathering of supporters of the bill earlier this week that while conventional wisdom has it that gun violence disproportionately impacts economically marginalized communities there is little data to buttress this belief. The bill, she argues, could provide that kind of data and more. The bill imposes no new restrictions or penalties on gun owners.

The federal government not only has no interest in gathering and disseminating data on gun violence it is actively opposed to it, going so far as to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from even collecting such information. That leaves it up to the states. The Massachusetts bill is backed by the Massachusetts Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention and March for Our Lives Boston.

The recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 has brought renewed attention to gun laws. In Virginia, a state whose elected officials have long been under the thumb of the gun lobby, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam this week announced that he is calling for a special session of the Legislature to consider a variety of gun control measures, including universal background checks, limits on handgun purchases, an obligation to report lost or stolen firearms, and a ban on assault weapons and devices like silencers and high-capacity magazines that the shooter in Virginia Beach used. The governor believes that polls indicating strong public support for these measures and the elections looming in 2020 may make passage possible.

Days after the Virginia Beach massacre, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made the familiar claim that politics should not be introduced "too soon" after the tragedy. For gun advocates it is always "too soon" or "too late" to begin a political debate they know they can't win. The equally tired argument that "government can't protect everybody against everybody" was made by the chief of staff. This is a false argument because no one is claiming that government can do any such thing. But Americans are asserting that the U.S. government can at least reduce the number of gun deaths per year — just under 40,000 in 2017 — with the kind of measures that have worked in Canada, Australia and much of Europe.

For now, at least, it is up to the states, and efforts in Massachusetts, Virginia and elsewhere are promising. There can be no delay. The next mass shooting may be just days or hours away.

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