Dozens of lawmakers claim Healey gun directive is ‘whole new law’

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STATE HOUSE — Angered by her announcement last week that her office will step up its enforcement of the state’s assault weapons ban, a bipartisan group of 58 lawmakers sent Attorney General Maura Healey a letter over the weekend opposing “in the strongest possible terms” her decision and the way she announced it.

Healey last week announced that she will crack down on enforcement of the state’s 1998 assault weapons ban, specifically focusing on what she called “copycat” versions or duplicates of firearms banned under that law.

A gun qualifies as a forbidden copycat if it is “substantially similar in construction and configuration” to one of the banned guns or has interchangeable key parts, according to the enforcement notice.

“For the last 18 years, the law has been implemented and enforced consistently, both by your office and your predecessors,” the legislators wrote. “Your new directive, which has been presented by your office as nothing more than a closing of ‘loopholes’ in the current law, appears in fact to be much more than that: the enforcement of a whole new law that unfairly infringes on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners in Massachusetts.”

Healey’s announcement last week “raises far more questions than it answers,” including why no action has been undertaken by any attorney general to stop the sale of these “copycat” weapons if they are indeed banned by the 1998 law, the lawmakers wrote.

“As our Enforcement Notice made clear, copycat assault weapons are illegal and have been in Massachusetts since 1998. For far too long, the gun industry has been allowed to flout our state assault ban,” Healey spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore said in a statement. “Claims that we are changing the law and taking guns away from law-abiding citizens are inaccurate and misinformed. Our office will continue to work with the gun industry, including manufacturers and dealers, so they understand the law and comply with it.”

Led by House Minority Leader Brad Jones and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, the letter was circulated Friday and Saturday for lawmakers’ signatures. All 40 of the Legislature’s Republicans signed and 18 Democrats — four in the Senate and 14 in the House — did as well. The letter was sent to Healey’s office over the weekend.

The letter criticized Healey, too, for the way she went about issuing the enforcement notice. Jones and other lawmakers said they first heard about Healey’s decision in the media and the next day got an email from the attorney general’s office explaining it.

“We are particularly concerned that your Enforcement Notice was issued unilaterally, with very little, if any, advance notice for licensed gun dealers and lawful gun owners to adequately prepare for this new interpretation of the 1998 assault weapons law,” the elected officials wrote.

Jones said Healey’s announcement was “clearly in the works” for some time, citing a press release that featured quotes from members of Congress and others who would have required advance notice to be able to comment on the announcement. Leaving the Legislature in the dark has angered even some Democrats who otherwise support Healey’s actions, Jones said.

“She should have proposed legislation and said, ‘here is the problem, we want to solve this problem.’ We’ve had attorney generals of her party — and she’s worked in the AG’s office — and this wasn’t an issue. We had eight years of a Democratic governor and this wasn’t an issue, and we just did a major gun bill in 2014 and this issue wasn’t debated,” Jones told the News Service on Monday. “This seems much more politically calculated to take advantage of the moment, if you will, of some of the tragedies that have unfolded nationally or beyond.”

If Healey were to file legislation to address the issue of duplicate or “copycat” firearms, lawmakers said they would be happy to consider it and vet it through the committee process.

“We want to be clear that we are not opposed to revisiting the state’s gun laws periodically to ensure that they are up-to-date and being properly enforced,” legislators wrote in the letter. “However, we believe strongly that any such review should be accompanied by a rigorous debate of the Legislature, with full public input, before any changes are made to ensure that lawful gun owners have a clear understanding of the law and how it will be enforced.”

As hundreds of gun rights activists rallied outside the State House on Saturday, Sen. Donald Humason of Westfield and Rep. Marc Lombardo of Billerica filed legislation to clarify or eliminate the attorney general’s authority to promulgate regulations for the sale of firearms.

Joining the Legislature’s 40 Republicans in signing the letter were Democratic Sens. Anne Gobi, Jennifer Flanagan, James Timilty and Michael Moore, and Reps. James Dwyer, Colleen Garry, Brian Mannal, Alan Silvia, Thomas Golden, Thomas Clater, Jonathan Zlotnick, John Velis, Josh Cutler, James Arciero, Stephan Hay, Dave Nangle, Paul McMurtry and Stephen Kulik.

— Written by Colin A. Young

Copyright State House News Service