- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts, which has among the toughest gun laws in the country, will revisit the firearms debate next week, as Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo is set to unveil his long-awaited bill to address gun violence in the wake of the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

A DeLeo spokesman promises the legislation being introduced Tuesday will be “comprehensive” and maintain Massachusetts’ status as a national leader in gun safety.

“The Speaker been talking for a long time about strong anti-gun violence legislation,” said Seth Gitell, DeLeo’s communications director. “He has the aspiration that Massachusetts can lead the nation and be one of the strongest places in the world with respect to this legislation.”

In 1998, Massachusetts enacted what, at the time, was one of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Among other things, that legislation banned semi-automatic assault weapons and magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. It also required firearms be locked or secured most times.

DeLeo’s office has declined to what exactly the bill will contain, only that the proposal will draw from many of the 44-recommendations issued in February by a Speaker-appointed panel tasked with suggesting ways to further reduce gun violence in Massachusetts, which has among the lowest rates of household firearm ownership, unintentional firearm deaths and non-fatal firearm injuries in the nation.

Gun control supporters say among the most significant recommendations made by the gun task force was requiring criminal background checks on all secondary private firearms sales, including those made at gun shows. Federal law only requires criminal background checks for guns sold through licensed firearm dealers.

John Rosenthal, founder of the Newton-based Stop Handgun Violence, says such legislation would help reduce illegal gun trafficking.

Pro-gun advocates, meanwhile, are “dead-set” against proposals that would give local law enforcement officials greater discretion in issuing firearms licenses, says Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association.

Currently, police chiefs can deny a license to carry a handgun if they deem the applicant “unsuitable” - even if that person clears a criminal background check. The House’s gun violence committee suggested extending that same discretion to the issuance of “firearms identification cards” for rifles and shotguns.

Elsewhere, the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety has called on Massachusetts to start submitting information about those disqualified from owning a gun because of mental illness or substance abuse problems to federal authorities. The group, backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, says Massachusetts has contributed just one mental health record into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, despite federal requirements.

The House’s gun violence committee recommended the state begin sharing records of individuals who are sent to court-ordered treatment for substance abuse or mental illness and demonstrate a “likelihood of serious harm” to themselves or others.

Local advocates on both side of the gun control debate say they support such a mandate, though Wallace, of the Gun Owners’ Action League, said his members remain concerned that the legislation might be overbroad. “People who just seek temporary help for a divorce, or whatever it may be - that’s none of the government’s business,” he said. “The devil’s in the details in stuff like that.”

Jack McDevitt, an associate dean at Northeastern University who chaired the nine-member gun panel, stressed the committee specifically stated Massachusetts should not report information about individuals who seek treatment voluntary or are “involuntarily hospitalized for assessment and evaluation.”

He also noted that a number of gun control measures ultimately did not make their final recommendations. Among them: a Governor Deval Patrick-backed proposal to limit firearm purchases to once a month and a proposal to further limit the size of ammunition cartridges.