Inner-city priests weigh in to support gun control measure

BRAINTREE -- Father Paul O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, says that if he wanted to buy an illegal gun in his city, he could do so within hours.

According to Father O'Brien, gun violence, often carried out with illegal weapons, is "a regular part of life" in Lawrence.

"I have witnessed numerous people shot dead," he said in an Oct. 20 interview. "More than I can count. I have witnessed more people than I can count injured. I have buried more young people than I have the ability to tally who have died as a result of guns."

On Oct. 10, Father O'Brien testified at the State House in favor of H.4135, a bill which would tighten the state's gun control laws, which are some of the most restrictive in the country. The bill, which was supported by the Archdiocese of Boston but opposed by gun rights advocates, passed the House 120-38 on Oct. 18.

In an Oct. 19 interview, Father Bryan Hehir, secretary of health and social services for the archdiocese, said the bill should stop "this horrendous plague of killings" that Massachusetts has experienced in recent years.

The 126-page bill is a slightly shortened version of a bill drafted in June by State Rep. Michael Day, a Democrat representing Stoneham and Winchester. In May, Father Hehir arranged a meeting between Rep. Day and six priests, including those who minister in communities affected by gun violence. Those priests were Father Hehir, Father O'Brien, Father John Currie of Dorchester Catholic Tri Parishes, Father Joe Raeke of Mary Queen of Martyrs Parish in Plymouth, Father Joseph Linh T. Nguyen of St. Mark-St. Ambrose Parish in Dorchester, and Father Jack Ahern of St. Gregory Parish, also in Dorchester.

"I think it was very positive," Father Ahern told The Pilot in an Oct. 20 interview. "I think he heard us. I think we said what was included in the legislation. We were very concerned about the amount of guns, the amount of unregistered guns, ghost guns, assault weapons."

Day's bill bans all future purchases of AR-15 rifles, as well as some pistols designed to be fired from the shoulder and magazine-fed shotguns with a pistol or forward grip. Those who currently own such weapons would be allowed to keep them.

One of the bill's main points is cracking down on "ghost guns," illegal firearms that are assembled from untraceable parts. The bill requires more gun parts to have serial numbers, thus making them easier to track.

The bill also requires anyone seeking to apply for a gun license to be interviewed by a police officer first, and bars anyone who has a harassment prevention order from obtaining a gun license. It also creates a database for guns used in crimes and seized by law enforcement, and increases punishments for not reporting lost or stolen firearms to police.

"I think any responsible gun owner, I hope, would want to report a lost or stolen firearm," Father O'Brien said.

He believes that many of the guns sold on the streets of Lawrence are lost or stolen.

Most troubling to its opponents, the bill would make it illegal for private citizens to carry firearms in schools, colleges, government buildings, polling places, or on private property, unless the owner has given permission.

Father O'Brien said that while no bill can completely eliminate gun violence, he hopes that H.4135 "will do some good."

"I am all for sensible gun ownership," he said. "I'm all for people protecting themselves with responsible use of firearms, but I am living in a community where guns are omnipresent."

During the eight years that Father Ahern was pastor of St. Peter Parish in Dorchester, he presided over the funerals of 46 young men lost to gun violence.

"It's devastating on families," he said. "It's devastating on the stability of the neighborhood."

As a priest, he has visited families of victims, and has partnered with neighborhood schools and health centers to find solutions to the crisis. Law enforcement and community organizations have been "responsive," he said, but gun violence still "wreaks havoc on the neighborhood."

"The major cities have issues with gun violence," he said. "It's not a Dorchester problem, it's a societal problem, and that's what (Rep.) Day's bill is trying to address."

The bill has passed the House of Representatives, but now it must pass the State Senate, where it will face further scrutiny. The Senate is already working on its own gun control bill. At some point, the two bills will have to be combined into one.

Father Hehir said that the Senate "is supportive of the idea" of the bill, but that the divisive nature of the issue will make it difficult for the archdiocese to work with senators.

"This is probably going to be a struggle," he said.