The topic of gun violence in society has recently resurfaced following the horrific events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., just over a month ago.
This unspeakable violence has rekindled a debate about methods for keeping our schools, streets and, overall, communities safe from future occurrences of such violence.
Second Amendment rights activists have since found themselves pitted against gun control proponents, and vice versa. Some have positioned the rule of law as the strongest deterrent, claiming that without stronger penalties, bans on certain devices, or new regulations, we will not be safe. Others have asserted just the opposite: It’s the people who commit the heinous acts; and therefore we must seek prevention and target those who pose the greatest risk of spawning this pure terror.
Whether you are pro-gun control or pro-gun rights, we can all agree that something needs to be accomplished to avoid a repeat of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine from occurring again, whether in classrooms, on campuses, in shopping malls, or even in our own backyards.
Approaching these tragedies, however, requires a rational approach. We must thoughtfully consider any legislative action, especially during this trying and emotional time. Logic must be the driver of the legislative process rather than emotional reaction to heart wrenching tragedy.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 17 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth both provide for the right of gun possession. For many years, pro-gun and anti-gun advocates have debated whether the Second Amendment was limited to military purposes or whether it protects an individual’s right to possess and carry firearms. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions officially establishing the individual right interpretation.
In a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm, unconnected to service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes.
Two years later the court, in McDonald v. Chicago, held that the Second Amendment limits state and local governments to the same extent that it limits the federal government. Certainly these cases delivered a home run for gun rights activists. However their application in communities across the nation, including the Commonwealth, and effect, is in question today.
Of course, all citizens are expected to use any right responsibly and not infringe on the rights of others. This axiom relates to all of our rights, liberties and freedoms. For example, courts have limited the freedom of speech by prohibiting individuals from falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded room. Moreover, courts have upheld states rights to regulate gun ownership in order to promote public safety.
Most responsible gun owners understand, and even support, these laws that promote responsible gun ownership and punish illegal gun use for reasons of public safety. Experience has shown, however, that unreasonable rules and regulations restricting gun ownership have not curbed gun violence, especially those who don’t respect life or laws.
Any murder, especially murder of children, is a reprehensible act. The sorrow felt by the nation following Sandy Hook and other tragedies is perhaps unmatched by any we have felt at least since Sept. 11, 2001. Yet, many proposals advanced in reaction to these recent shootings by the president, Gov. Deval Patrick and some legislators seem to add more burdens to those who have acted responsibly within the law while failing to stop gun violence by those who are bent on violating the law.
Some legitimately question, what evidence is there that makes any rational person sincerely believe that those who are mentally unstable or intent on committing violence will honor new, harsher restrictions on legal gun ownership?
While it is true that guns were the weapons used at Sandy Hook and in other shootings, the problem is much deeper than the type of weapon involved. Americans have a constitutional right to ownership of firearms, and that right must be respected. For the most part, it is the illegal use of firearms by unsuitable persons, not law-abiding gun owners, who are the perpetrators of these shocking events.
Since 1998, Massachusetts has among the most stringent gun licensing laws in the country, including an assault weapons ban. The Massachusetts gun license requirements currently involve a criminal background check and an application process that involves local police. We also prohibit individuals who have been hospitalized or confined for mental illness, permanently, from obtaining a license to carry. Additionally, for nearly 40 years, Massachusetts has had a strict law (Bartley-Fox, passed in 1974) limiting handgun possession outside the home for which violations are punishable by a mandatory year in jail.
It is certainly appropriate to review the effectiveness of these current gun licensing laws in Massachusetts, and make sure that they are being enforced. But the problem of gun violence extends beyond the choice of weapon and the person who uses it in a violent crime. Therefore, if we can make it less likely that unlicensed persons can gain possession of firearms, we should take effective measures to do so.
This requires, for one, a renewed focus on our mental health system. Recent health care reform legislation enacted in Massachusetts, of which I was a primary sponsor, will help to raise the standards and provide greater resources for those with mental health and behavioral health issues. For too long, behavioral health and mental health have been an afterthought of a health care delivery model, but we know too well what happens when these legitimate health needs are ignored, or unmet.
We also need to support our school nurses, school-based health centers, school counselors and public safety school resource officers, and give them the staffing and resources needed to deal with young people who may need professional intervention before they act out violently against others.
Given the fact that Sandy Hook, Columbine and other horrific events occurred in school settings, we need to improve security in our schools. That should not mean that schools must become armed fortresses or that school personnel be required to carry weapons. Instead, building off of school health emergency plan legislation I helped to pass last session, we should review the safety of the school buildings and ensure the maximum effectiveness of school emergency plans.
On that point, we need to ask the Massachusetts School Building Authority to work closely with local educational planners in the construction or renovation of schools to include effective measures that make it more difficult for an intruder to break into a school. Schools should also have the resources and technology to, for example, be able to lock down sections of schools in an emergency situation for the protection of students and school personnel until emergency responders have time to arrive on the scene.
I’ve filed legislation this session to better incorporate public safety opinions into new school constructions or renovations, and better equip administrators and officials with necessary resources to respond to emergencies, and most importantly, respond to the needs of at-risk children.
Simply enacting more feel good laws that will only be obeyed by responsible citizens will not prevent violence by those who neither respect the law, nor value human life. Such measures will not make our children, or our society, safer.
We need comprehensive, thoughtful measures that tackle the root of the issue, provide adequate safeguards, and respect the rights of law-abiding citizens. That’s a responsible approach to curbing gun violence, and that is what I will support. Most importantly, we can do more to protect our kids, their teachers, and our community, and that is what I intend to fight for.
Sen. Richard T. Moore represents 14 towns in South Central Massachusetts in the Massachusetts State Senate.