The small town of Westford is considering a ban on the possession of assault weapons, machine guns, and large-capacity firearms and ammunition, igniting a local debate normally reserved for state or national politics.
The measure, if it survives a review by Westford selectmen, would go before Town Meeting, which begins March 23. No other town has tried such a ban, according to the state attorney general’s office, which has to approve new or revised bylaws.
“I call that pushing up from the bottom,” said Robert Jefferies, vice chairman of the Westford Board of Selectmen, who first suggested the town devise a ban.
He said that real change has to start at the local level, because there is little political movement so far at the state or national level, despite gun control proposals by both Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama.
The ban came up at a December selectmen’s meeting that was held to set goals for 2013. The meeting was held place just four days after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, in which a gunman killed 26 people, mostly children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The goal, to work with the police chief to draft a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, was approved unanimously.
Kelly Ross, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said it was approved as part of a package of other annual goals. Two members, including Ross, expressed concerns about the proposed local gun ban.
Ross said he would rather see gun violence addressed at the state and national levels, instead of trying to break new ground locally and increasing the workload for town police.
“The law that’s proposed has certain problems that go along with it,” he said. “Is this something that really works at a local individual town level?”
The Westford Sportsmen’s Club sent a statement to the Globe opposing the ban.
The club “emphasizes and teaches safe, responsible firearms ownership to our members and members of the general public who use our facilities,” according to the statement. “Massachusetts firearms laws are already among the most restrictive and complex in the nation. Westford Sportsmen’s Club supports the Second Amendment rights of all citizens and opposes any local legislation that duplicates or is more severe than existing state law.”
On its website, the club describes its 25-yard handgun range and 100-yard rifle range as “open to all calibers.” There is also a 50-foot indoor pistol range available to members, according to the website.
A group of opponents calling themselves Westford Pro 2A (a reference to the Second Amendment, which the US Supreme Court has ruled protects a citizen’s right to own and carry firearms) is organizing and hopes to have a website up this week.
“I look at it as a clear and simple violation of civil rights,” said Al Prescott, a Westford resident and one of the organizers of Westford Pro 2A. “We don’t tell people what they can or can’t say on the town common. We don’t regulate what types of people are allowed to vote. This is a basic civil right we’re exercising.”
Many consider Massachusetts laws among the toughest in the country, with a state ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, strict licensing, and requirements on gun storage. But Jefferies said the Westford measure could close some loopholes and, unlike state law, would apply to prospective gun owners as well as current gun owners living in the town. If it passes, Westford residents would have 90 days to remove any banned weapons from town or surrender them to the police chief, according to the draft bylaw.
Penalties in the draft call for escalating fines, starting at $100 per violation, per day, and the bylaw bans the sale or transfer of firearms within the town.
Westford is only one town away from the New Hampshire border, where no permit or license is required to buy a gun. The Globe recently reported that in 2011, about 20 percent of guns linked to a crime in Massachusetts were traced back to New Hampshire.
If the Westford bylaw passed it would be subject to legal challenges, most notably under the Second Amendment, according to a written legal opinion requested by selectmen from attorney Gregg Corbo.
The town would bear the burden of proving that the types of weapons in the ban are “dangerous and unusual,” and that there is a “substantial relationship” between the bylaw and an “important governmental objective,” wrote Corbo in an opinion dated Jan. 22.
He further wrote that the proposal is likely to survive review under state law and that a grace period for firearms disposal could help with a challenge under so-called “regulatory taking” of property.
Selectmen will discuss the bylaw at their Tuesday meeting, scheduled for 7:30 in Town Hall. They could allow the draft to go before Town Meeting as is, make changes, or remove it altogether from the warrant.
Jefferies said a key reason he brought up the ban was to promote discussion on the subject. After at least 50 calls and e-mails, and news coverage, he seems to be well on his way.
“My main intent in doing all of this was to get everybody talking about it so everybody could get educated on it,” he said. “It’s very confusing, given how many contradictory laws there are on it.”