BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — The deadly shootings of 20 young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has ignited the debate over gun control at both the national and state level.
On the national level, the debate is centered on a proposed reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
At the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick is calling for new legislation to make it tougher to obtain weapons. Massachusetts has had an assault weapons ban since 1998, a ban that was reinforced in 2004 when the federal ban expired. Now Patrick is proposing a limit of one handgun purchase a month, a system to allow mental health records to appear when background checks are conducted during a gun purchase, and the closing of loopholes on background checks at gun shows.
“I hope the gun lobby will come and join in this discussion,” Patrick told reporters on Monday, “because I think everybody believes, a lot of us do, that there must be some kind of balance that can be struck between the interests of sportsmen and hunters and the need to keep automatic weapons off the streets.”
The shootings in Newtown may be the tipping point for tighter gun control at the federal level.
“I think something is going to be done,” said Congressman John Tierney of Salem.
That’s in contrast to the legislative inaction that followed recent mass shootings at a mall in Oregon, in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and in a Colorado movie theater, along with the 2011 shooting in Arizona that severely injured former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Tierney said he was in meetings yesterday morning with fellow Democrats on the topic of gun control.
“Even the gun enthusiasts in our (Democratic) caucus say something needs to be done,” he said.
“There has to be some common sense to this,” said Tierney, who favors “reasonable” gun control measures while protecting the rights of hunters, sport shooters and those who want to protect themselves. The “slippery slope” notion that any form of gun control will mean an erosion of the second amendment is “passe,” he said.
Measures Tierney favors include reinstating the federal assault weapons ban, and requiring mental health background checks for those purchasing a gun.
Tierney said unless someone is going to war, there is no need to own the type of assault weapon used in the Newtown shooting. Along with the renewal of the assault weapons ban favored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Tierney said he has sponsored bills that place restrictions on high-capacity clips, close loopholes in the background check for purchases at a gun show, and toughen laws against gun trafficking.
Citing an editorial in The New York Times on Monday, Tierney said even Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion that struck down a handgun ban in the District of Columbia in 2008, agreed that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited” and recognized limitations on the right to bear arms, including those on “dangerous and unusual weapons.”
Patrick said Monday he supports the president’s call for “sensible gun reform,” called for reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, and, in a move to head off youth violence, called for creation of new crimes when a firearm is used in assaults. He said a bill he has filed to toughen gun laws has languished, and he intends to file additional legislation in the next session.
“It’s a shame that it took a tragedy like Newtown to start this conversation,” said Heather Johnson, a spokeswoman for the governor, “but it’s time for us as a nation to be brave enough to have this debate and to have it now.”
Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis, a supporter of gun control measures, said the Bay State has some of the toughest laws in the country, but the shootings in Newtown show there are loopholes. However, the one-gun-a-month waiting period the governor proposes would not have headed off a mass shooting, he said.
“These are planned attacks that are planned over months, and waiting periods do not work,” said Speliotis, who said it is better to focus on the types of weapons being used.
“Last Friday has made everyone think about these issues,” said state Rep. John Keenan of Salem, adding that lawmakers won’t be tackling the issue until after Jan. 1.
“I think Congress has to take a look at that as well,”Keenan said of the lapse of the federal assault weapons ban, given the type of high-capacity weapons used in recent mass shootings.
“People have a right to own a gun,” Keenan said, “but for the life of me, I can’t understand why that type of weapon is called for, for a sportsman. Does someone have a right to own a bazooka?”
The Bay State has tough gun laws, Keenan said, but “that’s not to say we can’t look further. The unfortunate thing is it takes a tragedy like this to get the discussion going.”
State Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, said he is not familiar with the ins and outs of Gov. Patrick’s gun control initiatives, and he cautioned against a “knee-jerk reaction” to the Newtown incident. Other issues are at play, he said, including those related to the mental health of the shooter. Hill wants to hear from public safety officials first, “before we legislate changes.”
State Rep. Jerry Parisella, D-Beverly, said the question to be addressed is, “what’s reasonable. What’s a reasonable firearm, what’s a reasonable clip?” Parisella said it will be a balancing act to protect gun owners’ constitutional rights and protect public safety.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.