Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey faced a barrage of criticism in the weeks following her announcement of stepped-up enforcement of the state’s assault weapons ban, but the top prosecutor and her allies have spent the better part of the past week trying to change the narrative by highlighting support for her actions from a diverse cross-section of the population.
From U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Arizona Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords to clergy, doctors, law enforcement, the LGBT community and citizens posting on Facebook, Healey’s team has engaged in an aggressive campaign to highlight the grassroots support behind her call for stricter gun law enforcement.
“The NRA has an incredibly well-funded lobby effort. Their voice is incredibly loud even though there are so many people across the country who support common-sense control measures,” Healey said last week. “Any time you take on something as controversial as guns there’s inevitably going to be some blowback, but what’s heartening to me is seeing the widespread public support we’re receiving.”
The efforts continued Thursday, Aug. 11, when 19 mayors from across the state, including Worcester’s Joseph M. Petty, signed onto a letter voicing support for Healey’s effort to curb sales of what she has described as “copycat” assault weapons, a move that has drawn a backlash from gun owners and concerns from many members of the state Legislature.
“If anything, what I’ve been hearing from folks is that the attorney general is doing the right thing and enforcing the law,” Newton Mayor Setti Warren said in a conference call organized by his office.
Worcester Sun was unable to connect with Petty’s office for comment prior to publication.
On July 20, Healey announced her office would step up enforcement of the state’s 1998 assault weapons ban to focus on copies or duplicates of banned guns like the AR-15 or AK-47. Healey said gun manufacturers make minor tweaks to forbidden guns to skirt the intent of the ban.
The attorney general’s action quickly generated protests from gun owners who said she was overstepping her authority.
The Gun Owners Action League has stirred up its followers by saying the attorney general’s office is “currently seeking information from the firearms industry regarding customer lists and manufacturing dates” and has recommended that gun owners, retailers and manufacturers cease communications with the AG unless assisted by counsel.
GOAL claims that Healey’s steps are “just the beginning,” writing on its blog: “The AG is clearly planning a future attack, and the lack of action on behalf of the Legislature has given her their blessing to continue.”
Healey said her office will continue to enforce state gun laws, urge Congress to study gun violence and work with the medical community to teach patients about gun safety. She denied the suggestion that her actions are part of a multi-step plan to erode gun-ownership rights.
“You always hear slippery slope arguments, so I’m not surprised that GOAL and the NRA are raising that as an issue, but they’re not true. They’re inaccurate,” Healey said.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, the mayors of Newton, Lawrence, North Adams, Holyoke, Medford, Newburyport and Salem said they stood by Healey’s enforcement and believed it could help prevent gun violence. Several of the mayors said they had not heard a negative response from gun owners in their cities.
Along with those who participated in the conference call, the mayors of Boston, Peabody, Brockton, Somerville, Everett, Woburn, Lowell, New Bedford, Northampton, Worcester, Cambridge and Pittsfield signed a statement in support of Healey.
“The Commonwealth has had an assault weapons ban on the books for a long time,” the statement reads. “But for the law to work, it should be more than words on a page, it should actually ban assault weapons.”
As part of her enforcement effort, Healey last month issued a notice to the state’s 350 retail gun sellers, advising them that copies or duplicates of banned guns were also illegal in Massachusetts. She has said she will not enforce the ban against gun owners who bought or sold such weapons prior to her announcement.
“What we are doing and what we did is to take action to make sure people in this state have the full protection of the law. It’s as simple as that,” Healey said. “This wasn’t about taking the rights of lawful gun owners or infringing on anyone’s Second Amendment rights.”
Critics of the measure interpreted the move as an overreach that circumvented the legislative process.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said he believed there was initially “a misunderstanding” of Healey’s actions, “as if it was a new law that the attorney general unilaterally made into law.”
“It’s just the enforcement, and I think we’ve heard from the Senate president and other folks in the Legislature that have said that the attorney general does have the authority to do this and this is her job, and she’s doing it,” Morse said.
Gov. Charlie Baker and members of the Legislature have sent letters to Healey asking for clarity around the enforcement effort. A separate letter written by Rep. Harold Naughton, D-Clinton, the House chairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, described Healey’s move as “a misuse and overstepping of authority” and said some of the language in her guidance was vague and confusing.
Three Republican lawmakers — Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Sen. Donald Humason of Westfield and Rep. Marc Lombardo of Billerica — each sponsored bills seeking to remove the attorney general’s authority to regulate firearm sales. The bills, filed in late July, were not taken up before the July 31 end of formal sessions.
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Healey said that since she published her enforcement bulletin, gun retailers in Massachusetts are no longer advertising “copycat” weapons as Massachusetts compliant, assault weapon sales have dropped after an initial spike, and calls to her office are waning. “Gun dealers are coming into compliance. There hasn’t been any confusion,” she said.
Healey said many lawmakers were justified in having questions and that she was happy to address their concerns. She added that the data referred to by GOAL being collected by her office was being used to monitor sales data, including the sales of certain weapons to exempt purchasers, such as those in law enforcement, for compliance.
GOAL plans a fundraiser for Monday at the Boxborough Holiday Inn in response to Healey’s efforts, and the attorney general’s office is expecting a legal challenge from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which has called her actions “a blatant anti-gun attack on federally licensed firearm retailers and the law-abiding citizens of the Commonwealth.”
“I undertook this exercise of authority carefully and thoughtfully,” Healey said. “I took action because I believe not only do I have the authority to take this action, but I had the responsibility to take this action.”
NSSF has hired Michael Sullivan, the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts and one-time acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The foundation plans to file an action “soon,” according to a statement from Lawrence Keane, its general counsel and senior vice president.
Two of the mayors who came to Healey’s defense Thursday — Newton’s Warren and Dan Rivera of Lawrence — are veterans who served in Iraq. They said assault weapons similar to those they carried while on duty have no place on Massachusetts streets.
“I just don’t understand what the big deal is,” Rivera said of the response to Healey’s actions. “We have a law, been on the books since ’98, and we’ve got to enforce it. I mean, God forbid we enforce the laws we have on the books.
“I’m a Desert Storm war veteran as well, and if I find AR-15s and AK-47s on the streets of Lawrence, let me tell you, they’re not doing anybody any good,” he said.