Cape Cod Times Op-Ed: Our hands are not tied when violence is suspected

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018 @ 3:00AM

The following piece was featured in the February 28, 2018 edition of the Cape Cod Times.

Opinion: Our hands are not tied when violence is suspected

by Randy Hunt

Posted Feb 28, 2018 at 3am

Parkland, Florida, sadly took its place on a long list of communities that have experienced senseless killing in a school setting. Coincidentally, the next day, a long-planned gathering of gun-control activists on Beacon Hill was especially well attended in the wake of the Florida massacre.

Some people were concerned with gun-show and private-sale loopholes, others with high-capacity magazines and AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, but there was universal frustration with our inability to stop these mass shootings. That feeling has since been amplified when we found out that the FBI was notified about the Parkland threat and took no action.

As a state representative and licensed gun owner, it gives me a bit of solace that Massachusetts has the lowest rate of murder-by-firearm of the 50 states, according to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics Reports. Statistics don’t stop gun violence, but they are a reflection of our commonwealth’s approach to prevention.

In Massachusetts, there is no gun-show loophole. Private sales of firearms require both parties to be licensed and transactions to be reported to the state police. Sales of high-capacity magazines and AR-15s are banned.

What about the helplessness of knowing that someone, like the Parkland shooter, is intent on committing a crime but hasn’t yet broken a law? My conversations with the Beacon Hill activists surfaced this quandary and their belief that the answer would be to pass a law to implement extreme risk protective orders (ERPO).

The law would allow a wide array of people, including housemates, extended family members and others, to report a threat directly to a court, potentially resulting in the immediate confiscation of firearms for at least 30 days. ERPOs in various forms have been passed in a few states, including Connecticut prior to the 2014 Sandy Hook school shooting and California before the 2017 Rancho Tehama shooting. Are ERPOs effective? It is impossible to know how many crimes might have been averted because of such laws. Things that don’t happen never make headlines.

An ERPO law may well be called for, but rather than accept that our hands are tied until another law is passed, let’s look at our existing laws and what enforcement agencies are doing to keep us safe.

In Massachusetts, police chiefs are the primary gun licensing authority. They have responsibility for approving or denying firearms permits and monitoring licensees (with background check information provided by the state police along with their own investigations). Although some have argued that this system creates inconsistency in the licensing process, it puts the power of enforcement in the hands of people who are much more likely to be aware of local threats.

Can a local police chief curb the potential for violence without a crime being committed? Yes. As licensing authority, a police chief is the arbiter of a licensee’s suitability for possessing a firearm and can suspend a license and take appropriate action to confiscate the licensee’s firearms in response to information that leads the chief to determine that the person is no longer suitable. Permanent revocation of a license is also an option.

When circumstances are exigent, action can occur quickly. Officers can be dispatched to a suspect’s location to await the search warrant, thus reducing the likelihood of violence while the legal process is underway. The same circumstances involving an unlicensed person suspected of possessing firearms does, of course, rise to the level of criminal activity and is handled accordingly.

Not only is this possible under existing Massachusetts laws, it is happening. Every police chief can relate experiences of being tipped off to dangerous persons or discovering potential incidents by closely monitoring social media. Our school resource officers are alert to threats such as those made by the Parkland shooter which result in immediate interdiction. On Feb. 16, two students in Rockland made threats and were arrested within 30 minutes.

This level of vigilance is maintained across Massachusetts and it demonstrates that law enforcement’s hands are not tied under our current laws. “If you see something, say something” may be at risk of becoming time worn, but it is a critical element in interrupting dangerous and possibly lethal acts. Where the connection of community and policing is strong, we are safer for it.

— State Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, represents the 5th Barnstable District in the Massachusetts House.

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