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State moves on assault weapons ban

Measure hailed by lawmakers, gun advocates

By Scott S. Greenberger
Globe Staff / June 24, 2004

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Fearing that Congress won't renew the federal ban on assault weapons, state legislators voted yesterday to bar the sale of the same 19 weapons in Massachusetts, winning over gun-rights supporters by including a half-dozen provisions designed to make it easier to own legal guns in the Bay State.

The measure would prohibit the sale of semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons such as the AK-47, the Uzi, and shotguns with certain accessories.

The gun-friendly provisions include a six-year gun license instead of the current four years, creation of a review board with power to restore gun licenses to people convicted of certain misdemeanors, and a 90-day grace period for expired firearm identification cards and licenses to carry.

''There are a lot of good things in the bill," said Jim Wallace, legislative director of the Gun Owners Action League, the state's leading pro-gun group. ''In all, the bill represents a healing process, or the beginning of the healing process, between lawful gun owners and the Massachusetts Legislature."

Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat who spearheaded the measure said it ''recognizes the importance of preserving the assault-weapons ban for the safety of Massachusetts citizens, but also the need to make technical adjustments in the state's gun-safety laws."

The House passed the measure yesterday on a voice vote, and the Senate has already approved the same bill. It should reach Governor Mitt Romney's desk in about a week. Romney has declined to take a position on the proposal, but as a US Senate candidate in 1994, he backed the federal ban.

The federal law is set to expire Sept. 14. The US Senate approved an extension last March, but the US House has failed to follow suit.

Massachusetts lawmakers enacted their own assault-weapons ban in 1998, including it in a sweeping package of gun-control measures. But because the state law relies on the federal definitions of the prohibited weapons, legislators feared that if the federal law expired, the state ban also would dissolve.

To preserve the state law, the Massachusetts House approved a new version of the ban yesterday that would decouple the state definitions from the federal ones. Massachusetts is one of six states with its own ban, but the only one whose prohibitions were explicitly tied to the federal definitions. Seven other states are considering enacting their own bans, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a Washington-based gun-control group.

Gun-control advocates say there is no legitimate hunting or sporting use for weapons such as the AK-47 and the Uzi.

Polls consistently indicate strong majorities in favor of the ban, and the ban is backed by law-enforcement groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and the National Fraternal Order of Police.

President Bush said he supports extending the ban, but critics say he has not pushed the Republican leaders of the US House to bring it to a vote. Some critics have suggested Bush is professing public support for the ban, but letting it die to appease his conservative base.

''President Bush really needs to back up his words with action," said Blaine Rummel, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. ''He's repeatedly said he supports the assault weapons ban, but he hasn't lifted a finger to do anything about it."

Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman, said Bush still supports the ban, but is waiting for the House to act.

The National Rifle Association, which exerts significant influence on Capitol Hill, argues that the ban is ineffective and unnecessary. The group asserts that guns labeled as assault weapons are rarely used in violent crimes, and that many people use them for hunting, target shooting, and protection.

Wallace, of the Gun Owners Action League, said his group also opposes both federal and state bans on principle, but realizes that the compromise approved yesterday is the best he can hope for in a state where gun-control measures are especially strong.

Senator Richard T. Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat who received an A+ rating from the Gun Owners Action League, said the bill will help lawful gun owners.

''There weren't the votes to repeal it, certainly," Moore said. ''I felt the votes were there to continue the ban, and if we're going to continue it, we want to make sure it's one that doesn't seriously affect those who are willing to follow the law."

Barrios said he is disappointed that the final measure does not scrap a provision that allows gun dealers to continue to sell semiautomatic weapons purchased prior to 1994. His original bill would have eliminated that loophole. Still, he believes that preserving the status quo, at least in Massachusetts, is a significant accomplishment.

''It was hard for people in 1998 to imagine that despite huge support from the American public for the weapons ban, the Republicans in Congress and the president, in alliance with the NRA, would succeed in scuttling this important public safety legislation," he said.

Barrios described the new state law as the result of ''an uncomfortable alliance which serves the purposes of both sides, giving them something that is a priority without stepping on basic principles."

''I think it's a great compromise," said John Rosenthal, chairman of Massachusetts-based Stop Handgun Violence.

Scott Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.