AG Healey Answers Some Questions, Not Others on Gun Directive

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NEWTON — Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey brushed back claims from a bipartisan group of Beacon Hill lawmakers that her office has failed to respond to formal written requests made last July seeking clarity on her directive banning so-called “copycat” assault weapons.

“We’ve held numerous conversations with legislators and have provided significant information to them about the enforcement notice and our actions,” Healey told New Boston Post on Tuesday. “I continue to be available to answer their questions to the extent that there are any.”

Healey’s response doesn’t square with what House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) told State House News Service after his budget amendment, one which called for withholding about $800,000 in state funds from her office until she responds to clarification requests, failed on a party-line vote.

According to Jones, Healey has yet to respond to two letters — one signed by a bipartisan group of 58 lawmakers opposing the directive and another circulated by former state Representative John Fernandes (D-Milford) asking for more clarity on the action.

Healey on Tuesday participated with Martin O’Malley, a former Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland governor, in a panel discussion on gun violence, hosted by Boston College Law School. Her gun directive featured prominently during the discussion, with Healey noting that she had most recently been challenged on her order by several citizens following a town hall event she held last week in New Bedford.

“We need federal standards,” Healey said, referring to the discrepancies between federal and state firearms regulations. “I was approached by people who were protesting my interpretation of the assault weapons law, and I said to them, ‘let’s have a conversation — where are you on a national standard?’

“We went back and forth and one of them said he agreed with me on a national standard and I said, ‘good’.”

The Massachusetts assault weapons  ban was passed in 1998 to mirror the federal assault weapons law, which expired in 2004. The Massachusetts statute prohibits copies and duplicates of assault weapons but does not define the term. Healey has drawn a storm of criticism from pro-Second Amendment groups over her office’s decision to define the parameters of the ban. Those critical of her directive have pointed out that state lawmakers in 1998 never passed a “features test,” or interchangeability restrictions, to define what are and are not banned weapons.

Asked by discussion moderator and B.C. Law professor R. Michael Cassidy “what gave you the comfort to think you had the power to define a term in the statute that wasn’t defined by the Legislature,” Healey responded by pointing out the tendency for the issue to “become a real flashpoint.”

Healey never directly answered Cassidy’s query, and instead pivoted to talking about how her office “celebrated” a recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the state of Maryland’s assault weapons ban, enacted under O’Malley.

Healey then talked about her impetus for issuing her directive — last June’s shoot-up of a gay Orlando nightclub by a man who swore allegiance to the Islamic State, resulting in 49 deaths.

“I wanted to get a handle on what was happening in Massachusetts,” Healey said, adding that her office later determined that 10,000 guns sold in Massachusetts in 2015 could have been classified as banned assault weapons. “What gun manufacturers had been cute about doing was marketing the fact that their guns were ‘Massachusetts-compliant’ just by tinkering with and tweaking the aspects of some of these weapons.”

Healey was later challenged by a member of the audience. Michael Ball of Framingham, who later told New Boston Post he is a certified firearms instructor and served in the U.S. Marines for more than six years, responded to Healey’s claim that her directive was not controversial.

“All rifles account for 4 percent of homicides in the United States, only a subset of which are so-called ‘assault weapons,’ which remain arbitrarily defined,” Ball pointed out. “Having taught hundreds of Massachusetts residents to shoot, there’s plenty of hardcore Democrats who like their AR-15s, and I think you’re missing that.

“Plenty of liberals really like their AR-15s and they realize once they start shooting these aren’t any different than a handgun.”

Ball, a law student at the school, also recalled how in 2014 when the state Legislature took up the issue, and managed to pass a series of reforms, “they took input from their constituents.”

He then mentioned the letters requesting clarification that lawmakers sent Healey last summer.

“In 2014 they opted not to take stricter enforcement measures but you’ve gone ahead and done that,” Ball said. “While there might be some common ground, this makes people dig in.

“They see this as coastal elitism versus everyone else.”

Healey thanked Ball for his comments but added that she has “trouble finding the controversy in the concept of the responsibility we have as a society to ensure that people who are dangers to themselves or others have checks on them.”

“I have confidence in the legal interpretation we’ve taken,” Healey added.

Ball was later ask to describe his interaction with Healey.

“She totally ducked my questions,” he said.