Mass. bill aims to take guns from those at risk of inflicting harm

The bill would let family and police ask a judge to impose an "extreme risk protective order" against individuals experiencing a personal crisis and at risk of dangerous behavior

By Steve LeBlanc 
Associated Press

BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing legislation aimed at taking guns out of the hands of those deemed at risk of hurting themselves or others.

The bill would let family members and police ask a judge to impose what supporters call an "extreme risk protective order" against individuals experiencing a personal crisis and at risk of dangerous behavior.

The order would let police temporarily restrict the individual's access to firearms. The initial order would remain for 10 days after which an individual could petition to have the order removed. A judge could agree or could extend the order for up to a year.

Supporters point in part to suicides among veterans, many of whom use guns to kill themselves. The bill, which gun rights advocates oppose, could help avoid some of those suicides by giving family members more power to intervene, they say.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic state Rep. David Linsky, said there have been a number of cases where family members knew a relative had a mental health problem and sought to have weapons removed from the home, but were told by police they didn't have the authority.

"If someone is having a temporary mental health problem but is a firearms owner, this will be a mechanism for mental health providers to temporarily get those guns out of their hands," said Linsky.

Massachusetts isn't alone. Supporters say 20 states are currently weighing some form of the legislation.

A handful of states already have similar measures on the books including California, which passed a law in the wake of a 2014 mass shooting that allows family members and police to ask a judge to issue an emergency protective order for those at risk of harming themselves or others.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, said the legislation is misguided.

"We're actually pretty concerned about the bill. I think it's an extraordinarily dangerous bill in terms of civil rights and public safety," Wallace said. "It's a sound bite."

Wallace said lawmakers should focus more on the issue of mental illness and not on limiting access to firearms in a state which already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country.

He said there are other ways for an individual to hurt themselves besides using a gun.

"We're labeling someone an extreme risk and taking their civil rights away and letting them walk away? That's a horrific situation," Wallace said. "We're ignoring the human element. We're ignoring the situation. There are a lot of other ways they can hurt themselves and others."

Linsky said that argument is hypocritical.

"Gun advocates for years have been saying it's not a gun problem, it's a mental health problem. Here it is a court finding that there is a mental health problem and the gun extremists still want these individuals to have guns to kill themselves or their family members or innocent people," Linsky said.

He said the goal of the bill is to "take away the guns and get them treatment rather than leaving them with their guns and hoping they get treatment."

Linsky said he's hopeful the bill could pass during the current two-year legislative which began in January. He said he already has 32 co-sponsors in the 160 member House.

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