Massachusetts is leading the way on gun safety, but we can’t do it alone

In Massachusetts, we have a message to members of Congress and to my colleagues in legislatures across the country: It is possible to make progress on gun safety.

It’s not easy, and definitely not quick. We learned in Massachusetts that doing it right requires multiple conversations over a long period of time — and with people who might initially disagree.

But it is worth it. And that message is being echoed by the Massachusetts delegation, especially by Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks Ocasio-Cortez, progressives express disappointment with climate panel MORE and Congressman Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedySanders to deliver his own response to Trump speech Marriott says data breach impacted fewer guests, but millions of passport numbers were exposed The 15 Democrats who voted against Pelosi MORE.

Six years ago today, we couldn’t imagine a world in which the unspeakable violence of a mass shooting at an elementary school could occur. It was the following day that shattered the hearts of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victim’s families and loved ones. It brought a nation into despair. 

ADVERTISEMENT

When I heard the terrible news coming out of Connecticut, all that I kept thinking about were little children huddled in a corner with their teacher being slaughtered. I knew we had to take action.

As I do when developing any legislation, I started talking to people in and out of our state House. I wanted to take up gun safety. Many people told me not to get involved. They said Massachusetts had the strongest gun laws in the country. Others said it wouldn’t be easy, even in liberal Massachusetts — some suggested it would be one of the most difficult things I would do as Speaker of the House. 

It was the families and advocates that kept me focused.

After several months we established a task force made up of mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, school administrators and a gun owner to make recommendations for action; We talked with the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts. I was determined to have a comprehensive bill.

A year and a half later, in July 2014, after extensive negotiations among House members, our bill became law. It strengthened the discretion police chiefs have over authorizing any kind of firearm, including rifles and shotguns, and authorized licensed gun dealers to access criminal offender record information (CORI) when hiring employees. It placed penalties for carrying a gun on academic premises, and required that schools develop plans for addressing the mental health needs of their students.

We didn’t stop there.

Three years later we became first state in the nation to ban bump stock devices, which are designed to increase a weapon’s rate of fire and mimic automatic gun fire.

This year we passed laws aimed at preventing those individuals who pose a risk of causing bodily injury to themselves or others from owning or possessing a firearm, as well as providing them with crisis intervention, mental health, substance abuse and counseling services. Through our regular budget process we’ve invested millions of dollars in the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative and the Shannon Community Safety Initiative — programs aimed at preventing youth violence.

ADVERTISEMENT

We’ve talked to a range of voices over the years, including John Rosenthal of Stop Handgun Violence, educators, citizens, business people, doctors and surgeons, and sheriffs and law enforcement officials from across the state. I took inspiration from students from Marjory Stoneman High School Students in Parkland, Fla., who traveled to Boston to talk about gun safety. Last month I met with the Women Survivors of Homicide Movement.

Conversations like these lead to action. Real and long-lasting change isn’t only about tweeting, or marching, or throwing rocks.

I can say today that Massachusetts is the safest state in the U.S. with the lowest rate of gun deaths. But it’s not a proud statistic. Gun violence continues to plague communities across our commonwealth.

While the so-called mass shootings often attract national attention, there are shootings in cities and towns across our nation each day. We know that solutions in rural, suburban and urban communities are different. This year we also funded a $10 million program focused on prevention in communities most frequently affected by gun violence.

When the first of our three bills was signed in 2014, families from Sandy Hook in Newtown were present. It was an emotional day. It’s hard to look a parent of a child killed by gun violence in the eye. Since then I’ve met with too many other families, loved ones and friends of gun violence victims.

Looking back on all we accomplished, I have mixed feelings. We worked hard to develop and pass meaningful legislation. States, led by what we’ve accomplished in Massachusetts, are stepping in to fill the void left by an inactive Congress. According to national gun safety advocate Giffords, legislatures around the country have passed 280 laws since Sandy Hook. That’s good news.

My aspiration was to have more states — and the federal government — follow our lead. The recent spate of gun violence in Boston and the shootings in Thousand Oaks and in Pittsburgh are disheartening.

These events are not a deterrent from our past or future action but a catalyst.

Gun safety legislation is the right thing to do in honor of the victims and their families, and for the safety of us all. I hope others will join us.

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has served the state of Massachusetts since 1995 and as Speaker since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @SpeakerDeLeo.