By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- In a rare recorded vote on legislation taken before diving into amendments, the House on Wednesday afternoon advanced a bill aimed at reducing gun violence on a 111-37 tally.
House Republicans appeared to be nearly unanimous in voting against the bill, with the notable exception of Grafton Republican George Peterson who was involved in negotiating changes to the legislation from an earlier version that had cleared the Public Safety Committee.
Prior to the vote, an unusually large number of House Democrats joined their Republican colleagues to support a bid to delay a vote on gun legislation for one week, but the measure failed.
The House Ways and Means Committee polled the revised bill overnight Tuesday after an earlier version, authored by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, received only mediocre support. The latest version (H 4278) received a 10-3 vote from the House Ways and Means Committee by Wednesday morning.
Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick) argued against the motion to postpone, which was made by Rep. Angelo D'Emilia (R-Bridgewater). Saying Massachusetts had taken a more deliberative approach to the issue than other states, Linsky noted extensive hearings this session on gun legislation and testimony from more than 1,000 people.
Arguing for postponement, D'Emilia, Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich), Rep. Peterson (R-Grafton) and Rep. Thomas Calter (D-Kingston) said the bill was significantly different from its earlier version and members needed time to read and understand it and hear feedback from constituents.
Calter called it "totally unfair" and "totally wrong" to force a vote on the just-released bill on Wednesday.
The postponement motion failed 57-91.
While it didn't come up during debate, the clock is a factor for gun bill advocates as formal sessions are due to end this year on July 31 and any gun bill would need to first clear the Senate and then be reconciled with the House bill to reach Gov. Deval Patrick. The timeframe is a compressed one for major legislation.
In opening remarks on the bill, Public Safety Committee Co-chairman Rep. Harold Naughton predicted its passage would "make the streets of this Commonwealth safer and will protect the rights of our lawful gun owners."
In a statement on the revised bill Tuesday night, DeLeo said, "Since we unveiled the gun safety bill, I have been in discussions with gun safety advocates, experts, gun owners and House members. Our work has resulted in a bill that is fair and comprehensive. I believe that the bill the House will debate tomorrow represents one of the most effective gun laws in the country, an important public safety measure that can serve as a model to other states."
The revised bill, according to a summary disseminated by the speaker's office, would require the state to fully comply with a national instant background check system, and would authorize licensed gun dealers to access criminal histories prior to making a sale.
School districts would be required to have at least one resource officer and two-way communication devices with police and fire personnel in case of an emergency, as well as develop plans to address the mental health needs of its students.
The bill also retains a controversial provisions that would give the licensing authority, such as a local police chief, broader discretion to deny a firearm identification card or license to carry if "in the reasonable exercise of discretion" it determines the applicant to be unsuitable based on exhibited behavior or other factors that suggest the applicant could be a risk to public safety.
Rep. John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat who said he represents a lot of gun owners, said the new version requires police chiefs to have "reliable and credible information" in order to deny a license, and must put the specific reasons and evidence into writing, which could later be reviewed by a judge.
"We think that really puts some structure to what has been an unstructured situation up until now. If you think of it as a balance scale, the hope is that we brought that balance back," said Fernandes, who worked with his fellow Democrats to bridge the divide with gun owners.
Fernandes said House leaders have also stripped a provision that would have required all private gun sales to be conducted through a licensed dealer, which would have created an additional hurdle and expense for gun owners trying to conduct a legal sale.
The compromise calls for the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services to develop an online portal for private sales that will speed the process of background checks without making it more difficult for legal gun owners to do business with one another, he said.
Other sections of the bill would create stiffer penalties for failure to report a lost or stolen firearm, while waiving the 90-day renewal process for a firearm identification card and reducing the fines for having an expired firearm license.
A new State Police unit would be established to focus on firearms crime and trafficking and work with the attorney general's office and district attorney's in investigating firearms crimes.
The Gun Owners Action League, which had opposed the speaker's original legislation, announced Wednesday that it was "neutral" on the revised version, which addressed GOAL's concerns about misdemeanors disqualifying someone from obtaining a gun licenses and giving police chiefs "unfettered discretion" to deny a license.
"We have been very successful in changing the gun language in this bill," said Jim Wallace, executive director of GOAL, in a statement. "GOAL has told the legislature that we are neutral on the bill. We believe this is a victory for the 2nd Amendment in Massachusetts."
GOAL had also pushed for the creation of the new gun trafficking unit within the State Police.
Deliberations on the gun bill and amendments to it were continuing in the House Wednesday afternoon. A vote on engrossing the bill, which would send it to the Senate, could occur after amendments are considered, which could result in a different outcome than the vote earlier Wednesday.
Matt Murphy contributed reporting.