By Adrien Salzberg, Amanda Rasinski, Alisha Parikh, Minh Do, Selah Pomeranitz
Since 1998, Massachusetts has remained at the forefront of gun legislation, often referred to as having some of the strictest gun laws in the country. In 2017, Massachusetts was ranked as the countries’ fourth safest state, according to the annual study from the Gifford Law Center.
But neighboring states with more lenient laws are drawing bulk purchasers – and guns from across the country are flowing into Massachusetts, often illegally.
According to 2017 data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), less than a third of all guns recovered in Massachusetts as part of a police investigation were purchased in the state. Nearly 70 percent were from 43 other states across the country, with the largest amounts of guns coming into Massachusetts from New Hampshire and Maine.
“The vast majority of people still get a gun [in Massachusetts]…but the NRA has made a lot of people believe that they can’t, so they try to go elsewhere to get it,” said Dr. Jack McDevitt, Director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice.
Unlike Massachusetts, which earned an A- from Gifford Law Center’s Annual Gun Law Scorecard, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine all received an F. The Giffords Law Center assigns positive points to gun safety policies, like private background checks and risk protection orders, and negative values to laws such as permitting concealed carry.
New Hampshire and Maine have removed their requirements for a license to conceal and carry. Since then, Massachusetts has seen an influx of guns from these states.
The law allows family members or mental health professionals to recommend the temporary removal of a firearm from those who are considered to be a danger to themselves or others.
Other gun laws in the state include a thorough background check by a resident’s local police department, passage of a state-approved firearm course for first-time applicants, and an age requirement of 21-years-old, for anyone applying for a license to purchase a large-capacity firearm.
Because guns laws are regulated differently state-to-state, unrestrictive laws attract those who want to make purchases, often in bulk, with the intention to resell in states with stringent laws.
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, states across the country rushed to pass rigorous legislation aiming to prevent similar incidents in their own states.
When these laws failed to pass in many states, Massachusetts policy-makers took a different approach.
House Speaker, Robert DeLeo, assembled a committee to investigate the then-current firearms laws in hopes of making improvements. The committee delivered a report with recommendations at the end of 2013, to Governor Deval Patrick, to improve the laws. They were signed into law in August 2014.
An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence brought Massachusetts into compliance with a federal background check system, requiring the state to report any mental illness or substance abuse issues a potential gun owner might suffer from. It also enhances sentences for existing gun crimes and creates new gun crimes like assault and battery by a discharge of a firearm.
While the 2014 legislation was aimed in response to preventing violence such as mass shootings, people living in communities impacted by homicide can feel left behind when focusing only on instances that ultimately make up a small portion of all gun violence.
“Look at the outpouring of everything when there’s a mass shooting. Why don’t we have that outpouring in my neighborhood, you know, in lower Roxbury? Why don’t we have the same outpouring and the same attention?” said Dr. Stephanie Shapiro Berkson, Strategist for the MA Coalition Against Gun Violence and Professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
According to a 10-year study by Columbia University, published in 2010, white MA residents had the lowest death rate by gun violence in the country, but the state had the third-largest divide in gun death rates between black and white people.
Black people living in Massachusetts were four times more likely to die from gun violence than white people, according to data gathered from Center for Disease Control and Preventions Web-based Injury and Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS).
After tougher firearm legislation was passed in 1998, the number of active gun licenses in Massachusetts plummeted from nearly 1.5 million to just 200,000.
But while gun ownership fell, the disparity of violent crime involving guns increased, although it still remained low relative to the rest of the country. Gun trafficking, particularly due to straw purchasing, correlates to a vast gap in the race of gun violence victims in the state.
A straw purchaser may be a friend, romantic partner, or someone involved in a gun trafficking ring, who is able to pass a background check instead of the actual buyer.
Although about 97 percent of license applications were approved or renewed statewide in 2015, public perception of the gun licensing process reflected a different understanding.
Due to the depth of the background check process and the cost of the licenses required to carry a gun in Massachusetts, some would-be gun buyers coerce another person, or straw purchaser, to purchase a firearm for them, in some cases from a neighboring state.
Dr. McDevitt said, “They will try to go to New Hampshire, or Maine, or Virginia, and ask somebody who lives there to buy a gun and you know, give them 50 bucks and let them go buy a $100 or $50 gun. And then they will do it for you.”
When a person purchases a firearm from a licensed dealer, they are required to fill out a form authorizing they are the actual buyer of the firearm, which does not apply if they are purchasing on behalf of someone else. Straw purchasing is a punishable federal crime for both the actual buyer and the person they gave it to.
According to an ATF study published in 2000, straw purchasing accounted for almost half (46 percent) of 1,530 firearms trafficking investigations and was used to procure nearly 26,000 trafficked firearms nationwide.
Dr. McDevitt attributed most of the homicides in Massachusetts to gang violence. He said, “Most of our gangs are African American or Latin and that’s the majority of homicide in Massachusetts, not all of them, but the majority.”
Shapiro Berkson cautioned against blaming community members for homicides or gang violence, saying that factors outside a person’s immediate control, like disparities in social determinants of health between neighborhoods, may actively discourage or prevent them from choosing differently.
“From my experience…to me, homicide seemed to be a direct impact of segregation and racism,” Shapiro Berkson said.
According to the Boston Public Health Commission, Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and East Boston are the neighborhoods with the greatest population of African-Americans and Hispanics in Boston.
In addition to Roxbury, other neighborhoods with more instances of homicide included Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park, all of which have a black majority population, as well as Jamaica Plain and the South End.
According to a Boston Plans report, 83 percent of Roxbury’s 50,000 residents are black and Latinx community members, who’s annual salary average is $25,937, less than half the Boston median of $55,777.
Many underlying systemic factors contribute to this result, including the lasting impact of residential segregation during the early 20th century. A study that measured racial integration in neighborhoods throughout each state found that segregated neighborhoods may increase the black-white firearm homicide disparity.
Using a measure called the index of dissimilarity, where higher numbers represent higher levels of residential segregation, the study found the black to white firearm homicide rate increased by 39 percent for every 10-point increase in the index. The study also controlled for several measures of deprivation, such as unemployment and living below the poverty level, and still found a link between living in a segregated neighborhood and a disparity in firearm homicide rates.
The study hypothesizes that living in a segregated neighborhood may increase levels of black deprivation and disadvantage, in turn leading to greater instances of violence in impoverished areas due to lack of resources, desperation, and gang violence.
Growing up in a neighborhood impacted by homicides can affect someone’s life in ways beyond the immediately obvious, affecting their risk of other negative health outcomes.
“Think of physical activity. You know, if you live in a community where there’s not a lot of homicides, you’re gonna go out to the parks, you’re gonna exercise, you’re gonna be active,” Shapiro Berkson said. “If you live in a community where there’s a lot of homicides, you’re gonna stay inside and play video games.”
According to the CDC, social determinants of health are “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play,” like education and community and social context, that impact health outcome throughout a person’s life.
The state of Massachusetts continues to respond to large-scale acts of gun violence by strengthening laws to protect the public.
Following the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, FL on June 12, 2016, Attorney General Maura Healey issued a notice warning that her office was stepping up enforcement of the state’s assault weapon ban, including a crackdown on copycat weapons.
The enforcement further clarifies that any legally owned AR15 and AK style rifle copycats of firearms banned law in MA are now illegal.
Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts (GOAL), self-proclaimed as the “leading voice for sportsmen and women, gun owners and conservation efforts on Beacon Hill and across the state,” is currently suing Attorney General Maura Healey over her enforcement of the copycat weapon ban.
GOAL could not be reached for comment.
In an effort to combat gun trafficking, a few states, including New Jersey, California, and Maryland, passed a one-gun-a-month law. The purpose is to limit the number of guns someone can purchase in a short amount of time in order to reduce gun trafficking.
The state of Virginia adopted the one-gun-a-month law back in 1993 after the state was noted as the primary source of guns recovered in surrounding states used in a crime.
After the law was passed, the odds of recovering a gun sourced from Virginia dropped by 71 percent for the state of New York, 72 percent for Massachusetts, and 66 percent for New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
In the four years before Virginia passed a one-gun law that took effect, 35 percent of guns recovered in criminal investigations from New Jersey through Massachusetts, came from Virginia. Two years later, the figure decreased to 16 percent.
However, in 2012, the law was repealed and gun trafficking is on the rise. In response, Massachusetts is looking to pass a similar monthly purchase law, included in the 1998 gun control bill.
To recreate this report, follow our methods here.