By Eleanor Clift
Want proof that tighter gun laws work, and that mostly Republicangovernors and Democratic legislators can work together to buck the NRA and pass them? Check out his own Massachusetts, where gun deaths are down 60 percent since 1994, says U.S. Sen. Ed Markey.
“In Massachusetts, we’ve found ways to make progress despite the NRA’s best efforts,” Markey said in an email. A staffer listed three critical areas where state laws have made a difference: consumer protection standards for gun safety; assault weapons and large magazine capacity background checks; and police chief discretion on issuing licenses.
“We refuse to be held hostage by the NRA,” says Markey, pointing out that Massachusetts is “one of the few states, believe it or not, that requires basic consumer safety features on firearms before they can be legally manufactured or sold in the state. These are the kinds of commonsense reforms we need nationwide today.”
The National Consumer Safety Protection Commission regulates toy guns, but not firearms, one of the many protections Congress affords the powerful gun industry and its lobbying arm, the National Rifle Association or NRA.
Massachusetts’ road to restraining its gun culture had its roots in 1994, when Democrats lost the House and Senate, and President Bill Clinton blamed the gun issue. His support for the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and a ban on assault weapons had activated gun rights enthusiasts and tipped the midterm elections against gun-safety advocates.
The gloom and doom after the election prompted some to turn to activism. In Boston, a real estate developer with a history of social activism, John Rosenthal, co-founded Stop Handgun Violence with his boyhood friend, Michael Kennedy, whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated.
Rosenthal had already partnered with local government to reduce homelessness, “so I had some credibility,” he told The Daily Beast, “and Michael, being a Kennedy, had tremendous access and influence.” Their first act was a billboard 252 feet long and 20 feet high, erected on the Massachusetts Turnpike next to Fenway Park, with messages to raise voter awareness. Sometimes there were pictures of children who died because of gunfire. There was also once a fake ransom note: “We have your President and Congress—NRA.”
A quarter million people passed it every day, and Rosenthal said Clinton told him that he used to change his route to make sure people riding with him would see the billboard, which achieved iconic status.
In 1998, a Republican governor, Paul Cellucci, signed into law gun violence prevention legislation, requiring licensing every six years for all gun owners, and the nation’s first consumer protection standards to require locked and safe gun storage.
It was a success born of activism and political bipartisanship, but sadly, Michael Kennedy, co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, died in a ski accident over the Christmas holidays in 1997 and didn’t live to see the legislation signed.
The next victory came in 2004 when another Republican governor, Mitt Romney, made permanent the ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines. The federal law that Clinton had signed in 1994 had expired, and President Bush did not extend it.
“We’ve become the NRA’s worst nightmare,” says Rosenthal. “We’re an urban industrial state with the most effective gun laws, and we’ve reduced the rate of gun deaths.” When he’s reminded that Massachusetts is a reliably blue state and that to other parts of America it doesn’t look like gun country, Rosenthal scoffs: “You get outside of Boston, and there’s nothing liberal about it.”
Smith & Wesson, the largest handgun manufacturer, is headquartered in Springfield, Massachusetts, “and they comply with our state laws, or most of them,” he says. They manufacture the AR-15 assault weapon, favored by mass shooters, but they can’t sell it in Massachusetts.
“Gun laws save lives without any undue inconvenience,” says Rosenthal. “We just make it hard for kids, criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, even al Qaeda, to buy guns undetected in the commonwealth.”
In 2014, after finding that two-thirds of all gun crimes were committed with guns from out of state, gun safety advocates focused on the third of those guns bought from private dealers or gun shows, where buyers were not subject to background checks. That’s the gun-show loophole that Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation to close in 2014. Thirty-three states still have the loophole, including Nevada.
“I have no tolerance for injustice,” he continues. “The fact that special interests have bought the Republican Party and intimidated the Democratic Party into submission sickens me.” He points out that America doesn’t have more mentally ill people than other societies that don’t have mass shootings almost every day.
“We have laws governing hunting. Five rounds for deer and three for ducks,” he says, “but when it comes to hunting humans, there’s no limit to the number of rounds you can buy.”
There are limits in Massachusetts, and that’s the story that Markey is telling his colleagues in Congress—that common-sense gun regulation not only can be done, but it has been done.
“Massachusetts’ success in gun safety proves that sound policies can quiet the gunfire that shatters families,” he says. “It’s no coincidence that we have some of the strongest gun laws in the nation, and we’ve passed them on a bipartisan basis.”
In 2015, the iconic billboard moved to a new location, near the Prudential Center in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It now reads: “We’re not anti-gun, we’re for life. Massachusetts gun laws save lives.”