Last week the Massachusetts Assembly voted a gun bill that was initially submitted to the Legislature last year by Governor Deval Patrick following Sandy Hook. The bill was debated at a half-dozen public forums attended by advocates on both sides, went through any number of iterations and finally appears to be making its way for final passage and approval before this year’s legislative ends on July 31st.
In fact, the bill doesn’t contain a single change in the current law covering how state residents purchase or transfer guns. The only change that has any application to gun ownership clarifies the manner in which town police chiefs, who are the ‘issuing authority’ for gun licenses, can determine how and when an applicant for a gun license could be denied either the license itself or the CCW privilege even if they meet the legal requirements for the basic license or, as it is known, the LTC-A.
So the changes in current gun law as it impacts gun owners are benign and slight. But the changes were very significant in areas that have never been the focus of gun bills before; namely, in issues relating to safe schools, mental health and, most of all, suicide and guns. The law requires every school district to create a plan to deal with in-school emergency events; to develop a “safe and supportive school” plan to help identify and treat troubled student who might become risks to themselves or others; and to hire a resource office to help implement safety and security in the schools.
But the most important part of the bill has to do with the issue of suicide. Guns are the method of choice for 50% of all suicides, a percentage which is growing particularly in suicides committed by teens and young adults. Nobody is saying that someone who wants to commit suicide wouldn’t do it if a gun wasn’t around; our national suicide rate is roughly similar to other Western countries where there are very few guns. But anything that can be done to keep mentally-distraught people from impulsively grabbing a gun and using it to end their lives is an important goal, and along with requiring gun dealers to post suicide warnings in their shops and mandating suicide prevention programs in schools, this bill contains a provision that is, without doubt, the most innovative and significant response to suicide that has ever been tried.
The bill creates a task force to consider ways to create ‘safe harbors’ that can be used by families and friends of “distressed individuals” to remove and store their guns temporarily – and informally – until the mental crisis is considered as having passed. The whole point here is to give loved ones, family members and close friends a way to prevent a depressed father, sibling or child from having access to guns while not invoking or involving formal contacts with the courts or the police. Maybe it would be another town resident, or perhaps some storage space could be set aside in a local church, but here is a law that will empower individuals to deal with controlling guns precisely so that the government doesn’t have to get involved.
For the very first time a gun control issue will be determined not by the government, but by the people themselves. This is a remarkable precedent, and it has gone unnoticed in all the pro and con reactions to the bill. In typical fashion, the NRA wasted no time trying to gin up its membership to oppose the whole thing, stating shortly after its passage that the bill “still contains provisions which will directly and adversely affect your constitutional right to keep and bear arms.” The fact that the bill gives us the responsibility to protect people from using a gun to hurt themselves is something that the NRA wouldn’t even understand, even though “We The People” is emblazoned on virtually every NRA poster that you can find.