BOSTON — Amid intense lobbying by gun control advocates, support is growing among legislators to allow for the seizure of firearms from individuals who show unstable or dangerous behavior.
A measure filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, and backed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, would allow police, friends and family members to ask a court for a so-called “extreme risk protection order” if they believe a legal gun owner poses a risk to themselves or others.
Police chiefs already have discretion to revoke gun licenses, but gun control advocates say the bill will offer families a direct route to seek help.
“It would help prevent suicides and situations like Parkland, where somebody in the family knows that there might be imminent danger but has no power to remove the guns,” said Cindy Rowe, co-founder of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, referring to the mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people. “We need this kind of protection in our state.”
Like domestic violence protection orders, petitioners under the “red flag” law would have to show evidence that someone intends to harm themselves or others, said Rowe.
Gun rights advocates oppose the move. They say the state should focus on improving access to mental health services, not seizing firearms.
“If you’re trying to identify the next Parkland monster who is going to go into a school and murder our kids, all this bill does is take their legal gun away and set them free,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association. “That’s just ludicrous.”
Wallace points out that most suicides in Massachusetts don’t involve firearms but suffocation by hanging.
His group has pitched an alternative, backed by several House Republicans, to improve suicide prevention by creating a new statewide hotline and establishing a system for following up on calls and documented suicide attempts.
It would also give judges the power to temporarily suspend firearm, medical and driver’s licenses, and to order people into mental health treatment.
“We’re trying to come up with solutions,” he said. Disarming people in a mental health crisis, he added, will only force them to find a different means of hurting themselves.
Support for “red flag” proposals on Beacon Hill has grown in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Gun control advocates have become a fixture at the Statehouse, holding rallies and lobbying lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker to take action.
DeLeo held a press conference last week with students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, saying he expects to take up the bill this month.
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, said there is general bipartisan support for Decker’s proposal, but Republican lawmakers want to see more protections for gun owners, such as penalties for making false allegations against a family member or roommate.
The red flag proposal is also backed by groups representing police chiefs, who say it will empower friends and family of people dealing with mental health issues to seek help, which could help prevent suicides and mass shootings.
“With all the stuff going on in the world, this is very timely,” said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Police Chiefs.
At least 30 states are considering similar proposals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least six -- California, Indiana, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut and more recently Florida -- have already enacted similar laws.
“I believe in the Second Amendment, but I also believe in reasonable restrictions,” said Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat and former police chief. “This is a reasonable way to make people safer.”
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.