Massachusetts may be poised to become the next state to enact a law allowing courts to issue protection orders to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The Senate approved a so-called “red flag” bill on June 7, voting on a similar House version while adding several of its own amendments.
It was up to House leaders to determine whether to concur with those amendments or send the bill to a conference committee comprised of House and Senate legislators to work out the details.
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed its bill to issue what are more formally known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) on May 23.
The House bill sponsored by Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) would require a court to conduct a hearing on a petition for an extreme risk protection order within 10 days of receipt of a petition.
But the court may also issue an emergency order without notice to the respondent and prior to the required hearing if there is reasonable cause to conclude the respondent poses a risk of causing bodily injury to self or others by being in possession of a firearm.
At a hearing, the court may order a person deemed a risk to surrender within 24 hours all firearms, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, weapons, or ammunition and his or her license to carry a firearm for up to one year or longer if the order is renewed.
The identity and contact information of petitioners may remain confidential.
Failure to comply with an extreme risk protection order would be punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or 2 ½ years in prison. Those found to file petitions knowingly containing false information or with an intent to harass the respondent would face a penalty of a fine ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 and/or up to 2 ½ years in prison.
The bill would require that the court issue a report on or before Dec. 31 of each year detailing the number of extreme protective order petitions filed and granted, and the breakdown of the race and gender of petitioners and respondents.
“Today @MA_Senate took a giant step forward in #guncontrol by passing the #ERPO bill to protect people from #gunviolence!” Senate Majority Leader Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) tweeted on June 7. “This is a commonsense measure that will save lives!!!”
Decker also tweeted on June 7: “Very proud that #ERPO passed in the @MA_Senate. Thank you @SpeakerDeLeo @Sen_Chandler @cindycreem for your leadership. Grateful for the commitment and support of my colleagues who worked on this together.”
The House and Senate must agree on a final version before the bill can be sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk before midnight on e July 31, when the legislative session ends.
Rhode Island adopted a red flag law on June 1, and Vermont passed such a law in April.
There is significant public support for red flag laws, especially after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.
An investigation revealed the shooter’s behavior before the incident had attracted attention from local police and school officials on several occasions. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a red flag bill into law on March 9.
There is also growing evidence that these laws reduce firearm suicides. A new study published June 1 in Psychiatric Services, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychiatric Association, found a 7.5 percent decrease in firearm suicides in Indiana in the 10 years following the adoption of a red flag law there.
The same study found a 1.6 percent reduction in firearm suicides in Connecticut immediately after the red flag law there was passed in 1999, but the decrease grew to 13.7 percent after a substantial increase in enforcement following the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
The bill underwent a dozen amendments before passage in the House. Another 17 proposed amendments were rejected, including several by Rep. Joseph McKenna (R-Webster). He tried unsuccessfully to strike language that automatically granted extreme risk protection orders when the respondent failed to appear at a hearing.
McKenna, a gun owner, said he voted against the bill because it does nothing to connect someone deemed an extreme risk to meaningful help and services.
“It simply removes their Second Amendment right and sets them free in society to commit acts of extreme violence using any other means, or even using firearms that they procure illegally,” McKenna said. “This bill provides close to zero protections to the public despite claims otherwise.
The proposed legislation drew criticism from the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL) which voiced concerns about its constitutionality. While Decker’s original proposal had been characterized as legislation to prevent suicides and mass shootings, GOAL said the final version passed by the House was stripped of all references to mental health.
The Massachusetts Psychological Association (MPA) has not taken a position on the bill because it has been focused mostly on an anti-clawback bill seeking to impose a time limit on the ability of insurance companies to retroactively deny claims already paid, said Director of Professional Affairs Jennifer B. Warkentin, Ph.D.
“We may review the red flag bill and take a position at a later date, but currently we simply don’t have the time and resources to give the attention and consideration that we would to any bill that we take a position on,” Warkentin said in an email.