Massachusetts Gun Reform Bill: Expand Police Chiefs’ Powers or Not?

A lot of back-and-forth has been going on up on Beacon Hill lately over gun reform legislation here in Massachusetts. As usual, the warring parties are gun owners and the gun lobby, vs. gun control advocates. Generally speaking, those two camps are represented by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, favoring stiffer gun control laws, and opposing them the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL), likely assisted by the National Rifle Association (NRA.)

A key point of contention has been whether local police chiefs should have the power to deny an applicant a license for a rifle or shotgun (as opposed to a handgun.) Under existing law, police chiefs are required to give people who pass a standard background check, and satisfy other basic information, what is called a “Firearms Identification Card,” which allows the applicant to then buy shotguns and rifles. However, the procedure for handgun applications is different. For handguns, police chiefs can exercise their own discretion on whether to issue a License to Carry.” A police chief has the unilateral authority to deny an applicant a License To Carry if the chief determines the applicant to be unsuitable, in his or her unilateral discretion. An aggrieved applicant can petition a local District Court judge for a hearing on the license application denial, but not many decisions are reversed.

Currently, the two branches of the legislature are split on whether police chiefs should be given the same discretion to deny firearms licenses to rifle and shotgun owners, as they now have over applications for handgun licenses. The House favors broadening these powers to police chiefs; the Senate version keeps the current scheme, limiting police chiefs’ unilateral powers to solely handgun applications, not to long barrel weapons such as rifles and shotguns. This past week, Governor Deval Patrick weighed in on favoring the House version of the bill, giving chiefs the same discretion on rifle and shotguns licenses that they currently have on handgun license applications.

As a Boston Massachusetts gun crimes lawyer, I favor a vigorous application process for someone to be issued a license to carry either a handgun or a long barrel weapon. I think those reviews are needed in the name of public safety, especially in this day and age of mass shootings. But what I don’t favor, is putting the power to approve or deny a License To Carry, in the hands of one solitary person (a local police chief.) Ideally, I’d like to see a 3-person panel review these applications: A police chief, a psychologist, and a lawyer — all mandated, as a prerequisite, to sign on each application decision, that they were neutral in their reviews. Either a 3-0 vote or a 2-1 vote would approve or deny a given application. I believe this would allow three key specialists (especially a psychologist) the opportunity to carefully interview and assess each applicant, consider the application in its entirety, and allow a majority vote to approve or deny.

The problem with this approach, of course, is cost: While the police chief is a salaried employee of the city or town involved, who under this approach would pay for the psychologist and lawyer? Clearly, those two professionals would not need to be full-time employees; they would only meet perhaps once or twice a month, depending on the volume of applications, for perhaps a few hours each time. Still, the fees for those two professionals could be considerable. If the fees were charged to the gun applicant, they could be sufficiently high that some applicants could not afford the fees, effectively precluding them from even being considered for the chance to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms.

So, given the competing state Senate and House versions now before the Legislature, which do I as a Dedham Gun violations attorney, prefer? I’d have to say the Senate version that Gov. Patrick sides with. Given the increasing amount of mass shootings involving rifles and long-barrel weapons such as shotguns, the Senate version is the better route. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.