Brian McGrory

Bay State sanity

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / January 12, 2011

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Not often enough does anyone say this around these parts, but thank God for Massachusetts. Thank God for our elected leaders. Thank God they have the will and the wisdom to stand up to the National Rifle Association and impose some sane restrictions on gun ownership in this state.

Anyone need look only at the profoundly disturbing photograph of Jared Loughner on the front page of every major newspaper in America yesterday, with those thin lips curled into a demonic smile, to know that no way, no how should that man ever hold the business end of any kind of gun.

In Massachusetts, he wouldn’t have, not legally. In Massachusetts, he wouldn’t have been able to buy the high-capacity magazine that allowed him to fire 33 bullets from his Glock 19 in one swoop, because it is illegal, unlike in Arizona.

In Massachusetts, he wouldn’t have been able to walk into a store, flash an ID, and buy a gun, as he did in Arizona, no permit required.

Massachusetts law requires a prospective gun owner seeking a permit to apply to the local police chief, complete a gun safety training course, and submit three letters of recommendation. The department conducts a background check that includes criminal and mental health records. All of this can take weeks.

“With his history, no way could he have passed a background check in Massachusetts,’’ said John Rosenthal, the normally mild-mannered businessman and founder of the Boston-based Stop Handgun Violence, who was seething on the phone yesterday for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

There’s more. Massachusetts then requires all guns to be registered in a state database; Arizona does not. Massachusetts requires all guns not in the immediate control of their owners to have a safety lock; Arizona does not.

Here’s the result of these kinds of laws: Massachusetts had 3.51 gun deaths per 100,000 residents in 2007, the third fewest of any state in the nation; Arizona had 14.95, the seventh most. Arizona loves its guns, and guns cause death — in this case, that of a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, and four others.

Chances are, nobody will ever know whether Loughner was incited by the coarseness that passes as political dialogue these days. But what can’t be disputed is that if he lived in Massachusetts, he would have faced one hurdle after another in obtaining the kind of lethal weaponry that he bought legally.

Which is why Rosenthal was so angry. While we’ve gotten it largely right in Massachusetts, the Congress has miserably failed the nation, and now one of its own members, by bending to the whims of the NRA, which seems to think that every gun has virtue and every owner is worthy.

Back in 2004, the US House failed to extend a decade-old, street-proven ban on assault weapons, which would have continued to outlaw, among other things, the magazine that was used in the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Congress and President George W. Bush then gave gun companies immunity from lawsuits. And leaders in Washington perpetuated a huge loophole that allows buyers to avoid even the standard federal background check when they purchase a gun from a private dealer in 33 states.

“The laws are so bad now that Congress couldn’t make it worse if it tried,’’ Rosenthal said.

Even in Massachusetts, where illegal guns flow from more lenient neighboring states, things could be better — a fact Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis raised yesterday as he looked out his window toward the area where a 7-year-old boy survived a stray bullet in 2008, and the gangster who fired the shot got just eight to 10 years.

“The system is too lenient,’’ Davis said. “If you pick up a gun, you need to be held seriously accountable for that. I mean some really serious time. This is up to the Legislature.’’

It would be nice if our officials took that to heart. The good news is, on guns, they have a history of doing just that.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at