Baker letter adds to debate over Healey’s weapons crackdown

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STATE HOUSE — Gov. Charlie Baker urged Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday to clarify her stepped up enforcement of the state’s assault weapons ban, warning that “ambiguities” in her legal notice for gun dealers could lead to an unintentional ban on many guns long considered legal in Massachusetts.

Baker, in a letter to Healey, said he supports the state’s assault weapons ban as well as the Second Amendment rights of its citizens.

“Keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who wish to do others harm is a priority we share. At the same time, protecting from prosecution responsible gun owners who followed the rules in the past and ensuring there is clarity when it comes to enforcing gun control measures such as the assault weapons ban are essential to fair application of the law,” Baker wrote.

With a separate letter, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Fernandes plans to seek similar clarity on Healey’s actions so that lawmakers may better understand and respond to questions pouring in from constituents.

Fernandes, a Milford Democrat, circulated a letter among his House colleagues on Tuesday asking them to sign on before he forwarded the message to Healey’s office.

In addition to seeking a list of weapons that will no longer be considered legal, Fernandes plans to ask Healey whether possession or private sale of guns previously deemed legal will violate the law, how gun owners might prove ownership before Healey’s directive was issued, and to justify her authority to take such action.

“While I do appreciate the Attorney General’s effort to help improve the safety of our citizens, it is my hope that additional direction from the Attorney General’s office will help clear up any confusion surrounding the implementation of the enforcement directive and help determine whether any further legislative action is needed or appropriate,” Fernandes wrote to fellow lawmakers.

Healey last week said she would move to close a “loophole” in the state’s assault weapons ban that she said has allowed gun manufacturers and dealers to produce and sell “copycat” weapons that function like an assault weapon, but have slight alterations that allow them to evade the state ban.

In her notice, Healey said enforcement would not apply to “future possession, ownership or transfer of assault weapons by dealers, provided that the dealer has written evidence that the weapons were transferred to the dealer in the Commonwealth prior to July 20, 2016.”

In Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, Healey said Tuesday that her announcement has resulted in a “precipitous drop” in sales of copycat weapons after an initial spike. Her office also said there has been “significant compliance” by manufacturers and gun dealers with the new rules.

Baker enclosed a letter from Public Safety Secretary Daniel Bennett in his communication with Healey that suggested “a great deal of uncertainty as to which weapons you consider to be assault weapons.”

Bennett, by way of example, said that a series of pistols produced by Colt with essentially the same design since 1911 have similar characteristics to at least one specifically banned assault weapon, and could fall under the first part – the similarity test – of her two-part test to determine whether a weapon falls under the ban.

A senior spokeswoman for Healey said the Democratic attorney general sought input from Bennett’s office as she prepared to issue her notice that was incorporated into the final version, and pointed to his support for her authority to crack down on gun sales skirting the state’s assault weapons ban.

“Given the previous discussions and briefings we had with the administration, it was surprising to receive this letter. Many of the questions raised in the letter mirror statements by the gun lobby. Dealers across the state seem to understand the notice perfectly well and have come into compliance. The AG will continue to enforce the assault weapons ban so that the public gets the full protection of the law. As we have been over the past week, we continue to be available to gun dealers and owners to answer any and all questions,” spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said in a statement.

Bennett also said that modern manufacturing techniques have led to many weapons containing interchangeable parts, making it difficult for citizens to understand the limits of her new enforcement regulations against illegal guns.

“Depending on how your office is interpreting the two-part test you have articulated for determining whether something is a ‘copy or duplicate’ of a listed assault weapon, a large number of firearms, including pistols that have been sold here legally for decades, may be unintentionally affected,” Bennett wrote.

Protestors and gun rights activists concerned that Healey had overstepped her authority rallied at the State House over the weekend, while Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners Action League, called her actions a “political stunt” ahead of the gathering of Democrats in Philadelphia this weekend.

“She unilaterally changed the rules and interpretations of long standing law overnight,” Wallace said. “She did so without seeking legislative support or consultation. She did it without consulting the state agencies that have statutory authority over the laws. She did it in secret with no public input,” Wallace said in an email to the News Service.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said in a statement that Healey was “correctly enforcing our existing assault weapons ban” and called it “shocking that over 10,000 copycat assault weapons were sold last year in Massachusetts.”

“In the wake of an Orlando shooting that took 49 lives, Attorney General Healey acted decisively to close an assault weapon loophole that has existed for eighteen years,” Sullivan said. “It was a big mistake to allow gun manufacturers the unbridled discretion to interpret and circumvent the assault weapons ban created by the citizens of Massachusetts.

Sullivan added: “It is distressing that the Baker Administration appears to be bending toward NRA and gun lobby arguments designed to undermine this important effort. An honest analysis of this enforcement action demonstrates this is not at all about interfering with gun owner rights to possess shotguns, rifles, pistols, or antique guns. It’s about enforcing our state’s ban on military-style assault weapons that are designed to kill people, not wildlife.”

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service