Banished to a dead-end study by a Democratic-controlled committee three months ago, legislation to deny a gun license to anyone on the federal government's terrorist watch or no-fly lists may have new legs on Beacon Hill.
The bill (H 3914) filed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich just hours before the mass shooting last year in San Bernardino, California was included in a study order at March's bill-reporting deadline, often a death knell for legislation. But Ehrlich's bill caught the attention and support of House Speaker Robert DeLeo in the wake of the country's deadliest mass shooting on June 12 in Orlando, Florida.
“It was sent to study by the Public Safety Committee, but the speaker has expressed interest in it and sometimes the status of a bill can change based on current events,” Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat, told the News Service.
In the days following the December shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead, Ehrlich's bill was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 54 lawmakers. Gov. Charlie Baker threw his support behind the measure as well.
But after a hearing on the bill in late January, the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security opted to recommend the bill for additional study rather than advance it in the legislative process. Now, in the aftermath of another mass shooting, the bill is again drawing attention.
“When it comes to this issue, I've noticed peaks and valleys of public interest around horrific massacres. As they occur more frequently though I've also noticed that public interest is increasing in intensity, so the peaks are higher but the valleys not so low,” Ehrlich said. “Hopefully this is a sign we are reaching a tipping point towards meaningful action.”
Currently, there are nine reasons a person seeking either a firearms identification card or a license to carry firearms could fail the required background check. Those background checks already cross reference the terrorist watch and no-fly lists, Ehrlich said, but her bill would add inclusion on either list as the 10th criteria for license denial.
Since 2005, more than 2,000 people on the terrorist watch list have legally purchased weapons and 91 percent of all terror suspects who tried to buy a gun were legally able to do so, according to a study by the federal Government Accountability Office.
“The missing piece is the law that allows us to deny those licenses,” Ehrlich said.
Other states are working on similar legislation, she said, but only New Jersey has enacted such a measure so far.
The Gun Owners Action League opposes the bill, saying that it “would do away with due process for MA citizens who appear on one or more of the federal watch lists. ... Legislation of this nature goes directly against the Constitution and must be stopped.”
On WCVB-TV's “On the Record” show last Sunday, DeLeo expressed support for Ehrlich's proposal, citing the increasing frequency of mass shootings. He also disputed the notion that people who find themselves on either list mistakenly would have no recourse.
“I know that there are some folks who would say, 'well some folks are on that list who shouldn't be on that list' and so on and so forth,” DeLeo said. “I think those folks will have the opportunity to make their case to whatever authority to get off that list.”
Ehrlich said there is due process at the state and federal levels for people who may erroneously be on either list, and suggested that using the lists as a criteria for gun licenses may be an impetus to improve the maintenance of the lists.
“I think it's reasonable to be concerned about the quality of any list and hopefully this issue will help focus our attention on bringing about positive changes,” she said.
Ehrlich's bill has also drawn attention from Washington D.C. She has been invited to the White House three times in the last six weeks, including once for a convention of state and local elected leaders working on gun violence prevention.
And on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, unveiled a proposal to give the U.S. attorney general the authority to deny firearms sales to individuals who appear on the no-fly or terror watch lists. Collins, a Republican, was joined by three other Republicans, three Democrats and an Independent in supporting the plan.
“Essentially, we believe if you are too dangerous to fly on an airplane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun,” Collins said at a press conference Tuesday.
A proposal to deny gun sales to people on a more broad federal terrorist screening database was rejected Monday by the U.S. Senate largely along party lines.
But public opinion polls, including one released Monday by CNN, report that as much as 85 percent of the national population supports preventing people on the terror watch or no-fly lists from owning guns.
“In light of repeated failures by Congress to pass this measure, it's time for states to step up and keep our citizens safe,” Ehrlich said.