New Gun Violence Prevention Law in MA: How We Helped Make it Happen

August 27, 2014
Right before my daughter was born, my husband and I took a childcare class. We were the typical expectant parents, eagerly awaiting the birth of our child, and petrified that we wouldn’t know what to do once she arrived. I expected to learn how to put on a diaper and what to do for an earache. What I didn’t expect was for the instructor to say that before I let my child go on a play date, I should ask the host family if they had a gun in the house and how they stored it. Before that, I had never actually thought about my quiet suburban neighbors touting firearms that could endanger my child. Fast forward a couple of years to our joining Temple Israel in Boston. TI was a pioneer in using faith-based community organizing methods, and was engaging in house meetings. One emerging theme was huge concerns about teenagers experiencing stress and issues regarding their safety.  And then, there was Newtown, CT. The tragedy of kindergarten children and their teachers being tragically murdered brought all of our attention to the threat of gun violence, and the threats that guns pose when used in crimes, suicides, and accidents. “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” – Leviticus 19:16. Could there be a more pressing moment to “pray with our feet”? Could anyone have a doubt that ancient Jewish text had direct application to our lives in the 21st century? Temple Israel was not the only place where the call to combat gun violence was heard.  In our Jewish community, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and congregant groups from numerous temples (prominently among them Temple Beth Elohim, Temple Emunah, and Temple Isaiah) jumped into the issue, and served among the first members of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. We were joined by over 40 other organizations, including our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), and many other civic, peace, survivor, domestic violence, social work, and gun violence prevention groups crossing urban and suburban communities in a campaign to strengthen our gun laws in Massachusetts. Notably, the Coalition Strategy Committee, which was responsible for guiding the Coalition’s plans and making quick decisions, included JALSA, JCRC, GBIO, and members of Temple Israel and Temple Beth Elohim. For over 18 months, we used every technique available to all of our Coalition members to achieve the goal of passing a new Massachusetts gun violence prevention law. Community organizing, coalition building, media relations, lobbying, field outreach, networking, legal research, and fundraising all had a role in the eventual success of our work. Within the Coalition, we defined our five major priorities for any new legislation, and then pressed these priorities in every venue possible. Our Coalition members showed up at six hearings across the state to testify and be present; met with legislators in groups and one-to-one; were quoted in  articles, sent letters to media outlets, and held press conferences at key moments; collected thousands of postcards addressed to elected officials; continually brought new groups into the coalition, adding their perspectives and their statewide memberships; and were present in the House and Senate galleries whenever this issue was discussed. We called hundreds of people in key districts across the state, getting them to call their elected officials just as the important votes were about to be taken in the final hours of the legislative session. In the end, the bill that passed advanced many of our priority issues, with some of its provisions being lobbied against forcefully by the NRA. Here are some of the highlights:
  1. Requiring registration and background checks for all gun sales in Massachusetts;
  2. Bringing the Commonwealth into compliance with the federal background check system while protecting mental health counseling privacy;
  3. Giving police chiefs discretion in issuing rifle and shotgun licenses (the NRA's chief objection to the bill);
  4. Advancing suicide awareness and prevention in the Commonwealth through a multifaceted approach; and
  5. Collecting trace data so we know the origin of guns used in crimes or suicide.
The Coalition did not get everything we wanted in this legislation. There are many next steps to solving the problem of gun violence in our communities. There is important legislation that needs to be passed on the federal level. What we did through this work, however, was embolden our legislators to pass the first significant changes to our state’s gun laws since 1998, and laid the groundwork for an ongoing effort to prioritize this issue in our communities and with our elected officials to continue this work to save lives. Cindy Rowe is a former member of the Commission on Social Action.  She is also Chair of Social Action at Temple Israel/Boston, and serves as Deputy Director for Development and Outreach of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA).  

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