Audrey Hale’s parents believed their adult child — who was being treated for an undisclosed emotional disorder — should not have owned weapons, according to Reuters.
Had they been in Massachusetts, they could have sought an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), which requires an individual to surrender their license to carry, as well as any firearms or ammunition, if they’re at risk of harming themselves or others.
But Tennessee, where the family is from, has no so-called “red flag law,” and Hale was able to legally purchase seven firearms, according to the Associated Press. The 28-year-old later used three of those weapons in a shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, killing three children and three adults.
The mass shooting — among 136 in the U.S. so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive — is once again shining a spotlight on the nation’s patchwork of gun control laws, where your odds of experiencing gun violence firsthand can depend on where you live.
Given Massachusetts’s strict laws, the Nashville shooting likely wouldn’t have happened here, state Rep. Michael Day told gun violence prevention advocates last week, per State House News Service.
“In Mass., we’ve got a tradition of making sure that we try to … prevent these tragedies from occurring, rather than reacting when they do occur,” Day told Boston.com in an interview.
He said state lawmakers moved quickly to tighten firearm laws following the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which upended regulations requiring individuals applying for a concealed-carry license to show proper cause. Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano also tapped Day, House chair of the Judiciary Committee, last summer to work on a forthcoming omnibus gun safety bill.
“Our laws, as they currently stand — despite the Supreme Court’s attempt to undo them — do exactly what we hoped they did, and that is to make sure that responsible gun owners have access to guns and have the license to carry guns, but those who are not capable of doing so don’t get access and legal permission up front,” Day said.
Massachusetts’s tools against gun violence
The results speak for themselves: Massachusetts has the sixth-strongest gun laws in the U.S. and the lowest rate of gun deaths, according to gun violence prevention organization Everytown for Gun Safety.
“If every state just simply had the same low gun death rate as urban Massachusetts, 27,000 of the 45,000 Americans killed last year could be alive today,” Stop Handgun Violence Founder and Chair John Rosenthal said during an appearance on GBH last week.
“Gun violence prevention isn’t theoretical. It’s been proven,” he said. “Every state that has effective gun laws like Massachusetts has the lowest gun death rates in the nation.”
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While gun violence has not spared Massachusetts entirely, Day noted that the state hasn’t seen the same level of mass shootings reported elsewhere in the U.S.
“We’ve seen across the country these tragedies occurring almost on a weekly basis,” he said. “I mean, they’re horrific to see and to hear about. And so we’re doing our best to make sure that doesn’t come here in Massachusetts.”
There are a number of different components of Massachusetts law that protect against the kind of mass shooting seen in Nashville, he explained.
For one thing, mental health can factor into whether someone is eligible for a firearms license. Massachusetts generally restricts people from receiving a firearms identification card or license to carry if they have been committed to a hospital or institution for mental illness, or if they are or have been under the appointment of a guardian or conservator on the grounds that they lack mental capacity, according to The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“We don’t want individuals who are not in the right frame of mind to have access to firearms or to legally be permitted to carry them when they can’t do so responsibly,” Day said.
He also noted Tennessee’s lack of the “final failsafe” Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which he said are “really intended as a last resort” for disarming those who pose a threat to themselves or others.
“We view that as one tool in many that we provide to our communities to make sure those who aren’t balanced mentally don’t have access to these weapons,” Day said. “Tennessee didn’t have that.”
Do red flag laws go far enough?
Enacted in 19 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., Extreme Risk laws have already proven effective at preventing tragedies, including a handful of potential threats against schools in Maryland and Florida, according to Everytown.
Yet red flag laws are not without some shortcomings.
As more than 200 gun violence prevention advocates spoke with lawmakers at the State House last week, Rina Schneur, a leader with the Massachusetts chapter of Moms Demand Action, noted that not enough people in the state know the red flag law exists or how to use it if someone in their life is struggling and owns or wants a gun, State House News Service reported.
An Associated Press analysis in September found that many states barely use their red flag laws. At the time, Massachusetts had seen just 12 uses of its red flag law since 2020, marking nearly 300 shooting homicides in the same period, the AP reported.
“It’s too small a pebble to make a ripple,” Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, who has studied red flag gun surrender orders across the U.S., told the Associated Press of its tally. “It’s as if the law doesn’t exist.”
Day said that when the Legislature passed the Extreme Risk Protection Order law, it also put funding toward educational and awareness programming around the policy.
“That was never put on the street by the previous administration, that we can tell,” he said, adding that lawmakers intend to “circle back” on the programming with Gov. Maura Healey’s team.
What comes next?
As state lawmakers inch closer to an omnibus gun safety bill, Day has embarked on a statewide listening tour to hear from residents. As part of that effort, he said he’s met with stakeholders “from every end of the political spectrum,” including local gun rights activists, gun safety advocates, law enforcement professionals, and families impacted by gun violence.
“We’re getting out to every part of Massachusetts to talk to folks about what they view as our rules, where there are gaps, where there are sufficient laws, and where we need to do better,” Day said.
Though it’s still relatively early in the process, he said ghost guns and firearm modification parts have emerged as one potential area of focus for lawmakers.
“I think certainly with technological advances in firearms outpacing legislation, that’s an area we need to have a hard look at,” Day said.
The timeline for a potential omnibus gun safety bill “remains to be seen,” he said. “I certainly expect to be able to present something to the House and have a debate on this this term. Whether that’s this summer or beyond is still a little unclear right now.”
The way Day sees it, reviewing Massachusetts’s firearm laws and making any necessary changes can only be beneficial for Bay Staters.
“We have the lowest rate of gunfire deaths in the continental U.S., but obviously we always think we can do better,” he said.
Do you agree with the effort to further tighten the commonwealth’s gun laws? Take the Boston.com poll below.
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