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Massachusetts police chiefs rally for right to control long-gun permits

Police chiefs in Massachusetts are blasting state lawmakers for shooting down a provision that would have given them sole discretion over who can get hunting rifle or shotgun permits, regardless of criminal records.

The Bay State, which has some of the nation's toughest gun laws, has long left it up to a community's top cop to sign off on handgun permits. Lawmakers were considering extending that to include the Firearms Identification Card, or FID, needed to possess long guns. But lawmakers, leery of the constitutionality of the law, which critics say can result in law-abiding citizens being denied their Second Amendment rights, have stripped a proposed bill of that provision. This week, police chiefs from throughout the state and gun control advocates converged on the Statehouse in Boston to blast state senators for removing the provision.

“Our position is really very, very simple,” said Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “We, as an association, believe that it’s unconscionable that if we determine a person is unsuitable to carry a handgun, that they can then turn around and apply for a Firearms Identification Card, which allows them, by law, to purchase rifles and shotguns. And there’s no way we can impose any restrictions on that. It just doesn’t make sense.”

"It’s all about public safety."

- Wayne Sampson, executive director, Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association

Sampson, who attended Tuesday’s rally along with Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, the city’s former top cop, Ed Davis, and several other chiefs, told FoxNews.com that the organization’s 351 chiefs are willing to work with legislators to find a compromise, but stressed that no one else in the state’s patchwork of towns and communities has a better grasp of who is fit to possess firearms.

“In our smaller communities, it’s very easy to check how many responses we’ve received for a certain address,” he said. “We know whether it’s a parent or a child having problems, or if it’s a domestic situation [involving a gun]. These are things that are very legitimate for us to take into consideration. It’s all about public safety.”

Davis cited an incident during Tuesday's rally regarding a man who killed an 80-year-old victim and then held a police officer hostage using a shotgun after he was issued an FID card. Davis, he said, learned that the man had mental problems only after the incident.

The state’s local affiliate of the National Rifle Association, meanwhile, strongly favors the Senate version of the bill that removes that measure, and noted other key provisions it contains, including requiring schools to develop plans for students with mental health needs and increased penalties for certain firearm violations.

“Massachusetts police chiefs have had discretionary ability [to issue handgun permits] for decades here and the system has been pretty widely abused as far as suitability goes because it’s left up to the chief to decide,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League. “Some chiefs say they just don’t hand out those licenses, or some are granted for target and hunting purposes only.”

Asked if he had constitutional concerns regarding the House version of the bill, Wallace told FoxNews.com: “I don’t see how you could see otherwise.”

Both chambers named three members apiece to a conference committee on the legislation, including four Democrats and two Republicans. They will now have until next Thursday to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

State Sen. James Timilty, D-Walpole, said while it’s clear that police chiefs want more authority regarding Firearms Identification Cards, it remains foggy how that will be done without violating rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment.

"The issues of FID suitability, MSBA security upgrades, increased penalties for committing gun crimes, and expanded tools for district attorneys to keep pre-trial violent offenders off the streets are just some of the differences in the Senate and House bills to reduce gun violence,” Timilty said in a statement to FoxNews.com. “I look forward to working with my Senate and House colleagues to come to a consensus on this important piece of legislation so we can make our schools and streets safer.”

Some critics of the Senate bill, meanwhile, accused state lawmakers of “caving into” pressure from gun lobbying groups like the NRA.

“The Massachusetts Senate has chosen to support the NRA over public safety and law enforcement,” said John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence. “It’s as clear as day.”

As a gun owner himself, Rosenthal said long guns can be just as dangerous — possibly more — than handguns.

“Any gun owner will tell you that you can do as much damage from a distance, or even more damage, with a long gun than you could with a handgun,” Rosenthal told FoxNews.com. “There needs to be recognition that a deadly weapon is a deadly weapon, whether it has a long barrel or a short barrel.”

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