- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

The Massachusetts legislature is considering a measure to rein in the state attorney general, who used the state's consumer-protection laws to essentially shut down handgun sales.

"He thinks he can use [the law] to do about anything he wants to do," said state Rep. Ronald W. Gauch, a Republican representing Shrewsbury and sponsor of the bill. "I think it's a dangerous precedent to have one bureaucrat and 150 lawyers making these decisions."

In April, Attorney General Tom Reilly issued regulations requiring that guns sold in Massachusetts meet tough guidelines: They must have tamper-proof serial numbers; they must be able to withstand certain temperature and pressure tests; they must not discharge when dropped from a certain height; they must be equipped with indicators to show when they are loaded and when a bullet is in firing position; and they must be designed in such a way that the average five-year-old would be unable to fire them.

"I hope other states pick up on the model that is working in Massachusetts," Mr. Reilly said this week, in advance of a national meeting of attorneys general in Seattle. "The gun lobby must be told that the safety of our children is more important than the profit of their industry."

So far only a few models manufactured by Smith & Wesson have met Mr. Reilly's requirements. Otherwise, no new handguns have been sold in the state in almost three months.

"These people want to ban guns," said Mike Yacino, executive director of the Gun Owners' Action League, which is considering a lawsuit to block the regulations. "They want to ban the private ownership of guns. Any way they can achieve that objective, they're going to do it."

While Mr. Gauch opposed the new regulations, he says his bill addresses a problem that goes far beyond firearms. If the attorney general can issue such a sweeping regulation on guns, he could conceivably issue regulations on any product.

The previous attorney general, L. Scott Harshbarger, used the same methods to crack down sharply on tobacco advertising and sales.

"I think it's dangerous at the state level or national level to give one bureaucrat that much power," Mr. Gauch said.

Mr. Gauch's bill does not overturn the existing gun or tobacco regulations, but it will make it more difficult for the attorney general to strengthen them or crack down on additional products. It would require the attorney general to submit any proposed consumer regulations to the legislature, which would have 60 days to hold a hearing and make recommendations, asking the attorney general to amend or kill the new rules.

The attorney general wouldn't be required to follow those recommendations, but he would have a strong incentive since the state legislature controls the purse strings, Mr. Gauch said.

The bill, which died in a previous session, seems to have new life this year in the wake of the gun regulations. It passed out of one committee earlier this year with strong indications that the leadership of both chambers would support it.

It has strong support from manufacturing and commercial associations, as well.

"What would be next?" asked Catherine Flaherty, executive director of the New England Convenience Store Association at a hearing on the idea. "Perhaps the attorney general would come to believe that the sale of snack foods, lottery tickets, or liquor was not good for the consumer … . The misuse of the consumer-protection law is frightening."

Mr. Reilly, however, is vigorously opposed to the bill.

"For 2* years, the gun lobby fought unsuccessfully in court to kill these common-sense safety measures," Mr. Reilly wrote to members of the State House. "Now they are taking aim at the very mechanism used to implement those basic protections, asking you, as the Gun Owners' Action League does, to 'find some way to curb the attorney general's power.' "

By giving the legislature additional say in consumer-safety regulations, Mr. Gauch's bill "puts this in the political arena," said Brian Heffron, a spokesman for the attorney general. "That's exactly where [the National Rifle Association] wants it."

Even if he can find support from the Democrat-controlled state legislature, Mr. Gauch may find problems with his fellow Republican, Gov. Paul Cellucci.

Mr. Cellucci has not taken a formal position on the bill, but "the governor has indicated firm support for the use of the consumer regulations in order to ensure or guarantee weapon safety in Massachusetts," spokesman John Birtwell said.

Even before Mr. Reilly imposed the new regulations, Massachusetts had the strongest state gun laws in the nation. It has required licensing of owners and registration of guns for decades.

Mr. Gauch said he hopes to get his bill out of a second committee and onto the House floor within a few weeks.

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