BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate approved a sweeping overhaul of the state’s gun laws Thursday, but not before stripping out a key provision that would have given local police chiefs more discretion over issuing firearms identification cards needed to buy rifles or shotguns.
The Senate bill had initially included the measure — which is part of a similar bill passed by the House — but it was eliminated during debate. The Senate bill would maintain current law which limits chiefs to conducting background checks before issuing FID cards.
The bill, which mirrored many other aspects of the House bill — stricter background checks, enhanced penalties, new gun-related crimes and increased protections in schools — was approved on a voice vote. That means the votes of individual senators were not recorded.
Gun rights activists hailed the change.
“I’m very pleased with what the Senate did today,” said John Hohenwarter, the National Rifle Association’s government affairs director for Massachusetts. “The bill’s in much better shape that it was when it came over from the House.”
Gun safety advocates said the change guts the bill.
John Rosenthal of the group Stop Handgun Violence, said giving police chiefs added discretion over the issuing of FID cards was the single most important aspect of the bill.
“Without it, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” Rosenthal said. “Shame on the Massachusetts Senate. Sadly they voted against police chiefs and against public safety and for the special interest gun lobby and people will die as a result.”
James Timilty, Senate chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said the change was in keeping with the Constitution’s Second Amendment. He rejected the idea that the Senate bowed to pressure from the gun lobby when it accepted the amendment on a 28-11 vote.
“There was no pressure from angry gun owners,” said Timilty, D-Walpole. “This was something I felt very strongly about.”
Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said he voted with the majority, in response to a clear message received from his constituents, to remove the language from the bill.
Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said that it makes sense to keep rules as they are for sportsmen, who use rifles or shotguns for target practice and hunting. “We’re just saying that for long guns, we’re sticking with the current procedure because there’s adequate oversight and control through the federal government,” Rosenberg said.
Sen. Cynthia Creem, who opposed the amendment, said she was told that the NRA had pressed lawmakers to strip out the language.
“It wasn’t until today that I had any inkling that the amendment would have had any traction,” the Newton Democrat said.
Jim Wallace, head of the Massachusetts Gun Owners Action League, credited the change to lobbying efforts by members of the group, who made calls and sent emails to lawmakers.
“It was an education process, It’s not just a matter of slamming your fist on the table and demanding somebody vote some way,” he said. “It’s explaining why you want something to happen or don’t want to happen.”
Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would create a web-based portal within the state Executive Office of Public Safety to allow for real-time background checks in private gun sales and would stiffen penalties for some gun-based crimes. It would also create a firearms trafficking unit within the State Police.
Both bills would also require schools to have access to two-way communication devices with police and fire departments and mandate that Massachusetts join the National Instant Background Check System, which requires the state to transmit information about substance abuse or mental health commitments to a federal database for use by police in reviewing firearms applications.
Both bills now head to a six-member House and Senate conference committee to hammer out a single, compromise bill.