This post is an updated overview of Massachusetts gun laws, prepared in anticipation of our expected discussion of new gun legislation in the senate. The Massachusetts Department of Public Safety also maintains a useful summary of Massachusetts rules and regulations.
The best resource to consult is always the law itself. Massachusetts gun regulatory law appears in Chapter 140, sections 121 through 131Y. Massachusetts criminal laws related to guns mostly appear in Chapter 269 Section 10 and following. The text below is just a way into understanding the law for policy purposes, and should not be read for legal guidance.
Overall, Massachusetts is perceived to have strong gun laws as compared to other states. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rates Massachusetts an A- and ranks it 7th in the country.
Massachusetts regulatory law defines three basic kinds of “weapons.” In each case, in order to meet the legal definition, it must actually be capable of firing a shot. Non-functioning weapons don’t count as weapons for regulatory or criminal law purposes.
- “Firearms” — short-barreled guns, essentially hand guns, also including stun guns.
- “Rifles” — guns with rifled barrels greater than 16 inches. A rifled barrel has grooves that give the bullet some spin for stability in flight.
- “Shotguns” — guns with a smooth (non-rifled) barrel with a barrel length greater than 18 inches.
Machine Guns and Assault Weapons
A machine gun is any fully automatic weapon, one that fires a stream of bullets with one trigger pull:
”Machine gun”, a weapon of any description, by whatever name known, loaded or unloaded, from which a number of shots or bullets may be rapidly or automatically discharged by one continuous activation of the trigger, including a submachine gun; provided, however, that ”machine gun” shall include bump stocks and trigger cranks.G.L. C.140, s.121.
“Assault weapons” can fall in any of the above categories. In Massachusetts’ core definition of an “assault weapon”, certain weapons are enumerated by name, including some weapons that are also legally machine guns because of their ability to operate in full-automatic mode (e.g., the AK-47). Additionally, a semiautomatic weapon is deemed an “assault weapon” if equipped with add-on features that arguably could make it more useful for combat purposes.
‘Assault weapon”, shall have the same meaning as a semiautomatic assault weapon as defined in the federal Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. section 921(a)(30) as appearing in such section on September 13, 1994 [see this pdf page 203], and shall include, but not be limited to, any of the weapons, or copies or duplicates of the weapons, of any caliber, known as: (i) Avtomat Kalashnikov (AK) (all models); (ii) Action Arms Israeli Military Industries UZI and Galil; (iii) Beretta Ar70 (SC–70); (iv) Colt AR–15; (v) Fabrique National FN/FAL, FN/LAR and FNC; (vi) SWD M–10, M–11, M–11/9 and M–12; (vi) Steyr AUG; (vii) INTRATEC TEC–9, TEC–DC9 and TEC–22; and (viii) revolving cylinder shotguns, such as, or similar to, the Street Sweeper and Striker 12; provided, however, that the term assault weapon shall not include: (i) any of the weapons, or replicas or duplicates of such weapons, specified in appendix A to 18 U.S.C. section 922 as appearing in such appendix on September 13, 1994, as such weapons were manufactured on October 1, 1993; (ii) any weapon that is operated by manual bolt, pump, lever or slide action; (iii) any weapon that has been rendered permanently inoperable or otherwise rendered permanently unable to be designated a semiautomatic assault weapon; (iv) any weapon that was manufactured prior to the year 1899; (v) any weapon that is an antique or relic, theatrical prop or other weapon that is not capable of firing a projectile and which is not intended for use as a functional weapon and cannot be readily modified through a combination of available parts into an operable assault weapon; (vi) any semiautomatic rifle that cannot accept a detachable magazine that holds more than five rounds of ammunition; or (vii) any semiautomatic shotgun that cannot hold more than five rounds of ammunition in a fixed or detachable magazine.G.L. C.140, s.121.
The federal definition of a semi-automatic assault weapon (incorporated in Massachusetts’ definition above) includes “a semiautomatic rifle that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of—
(i) a folding or telescoping stock;Federal Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. section 921(a)(30)(B) as appearing in such section on September 13, 1994 [see this pdf page 203]
(ii) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon;
(iii) a bayonet mount;
(iv) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; and
(v) a grenade launcher;
(C) a semiautomatic pistol”
The federal definition of semi-automatic assault weapon also includes “a semiautomatic pistol that has an ability to accept a detachable magazine and has at least 2 of—
(i) an ammunition magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip;Federal Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. section 921(a)(30)(C) as appearing in such section on September 13, 1994 [see this pdf page 203]
(ii) a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward handgrip, or silencer;
(iii) a shroud that is attached to, or partially or completely encircles, the barrel and that permits the shooter to hold the firearm with the nontrigger hand without being burned;
(iv) a manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more when the pistol is unloaded; and
(v) a semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm”
Licensing required for weapons
With very limited exceptions, no person may own or possess any type of weapon (firearm, rifle, or shotgun) without a license. Unlicensed possession of firearm outside a person’s home or business carries a mandatory minimum penalty of 18 months in the house of correction; unlawful possession within the home or business is also punishable by imprisonment, but the sentence is not mandatory. Chapter 269, Section 10 Paragraph (h)(1). Exceptions include maritime distress signal guns, common carriers transporting merchandise, a person surrendering a weapon to a licensing authority, a person being instructed and physically supervised by a person with a license to carry, etc.
The principal type of gun license in Massachusetts is the “License to Carry” which allows for the possession and carrying of most types of weapons — firearms, rifles, and shotguns, including large capacity weapons. The LTC does not extend to machine guns; machine gun licenses may only be awarded to a police instructor or a “bona fide collector of firearms.”
There is an additional class of license known as a “firearms identification card” which allows for the possession of non-large-capacity rifles or shotguns, but not firearms. Some local authorities (e.g., Woburn, Douglas, Carver) advise that a “permit to purchase” may allow an FID holder to purchase a firearm to be delivered to their home, but the state advises that a LTC is required. The awkward limitations and potential confusion around FID cards have led most people seeking to own guns to obtain Licenses to Carry. Tabulation of a listing available from the Firearms Records Bureau indicates that as of October 1, 2023, there were 21,745 FID holders as against 515,767 LTC holders in Massachusetts.
Neither an LTC nor an FID can be issued to or held by a “prohibited person.” Prohibited people include the following:
- Persons convicted of felonies, misdemeanors punishable by imprisonment for over two years, a violent crime, a drug law violation, a firearms law violation. A fingerprint-based national search for a criminal record is part of the licensing process. For minor crimes, this ban expires after five years for FID applicants.
- Persons committed to an institution for mental illness or substance abuse, but this may be waived in some circumstances after the passage of time and upon the affidavit of a physician or psychologist.
- Persons under 14 and persons under 18 without permission of a parent or guardian.
- Persons who are aliens not maintaining lawful permanent residency.
- Persons subject to restraining orders under Chapter 209A or similar orders.
- Persons subject to outstanding warrants.
- Persons discharged dishonorably from the military.
A police chief desiring to withhold an FID card from person who is not a prohibited person may petition a district court to do so and must present “reliable, articulable, and credible information that the applicant has exhibited or engaged in behavior to suggest the applicant could potentially create a risk to public safety.” For an LTC, the police chief is empowered and required to interview candidates and to make a their own determination of suitability (beyond not being a prohibited person). Their determination is analogous to the determination that could be made by a district court as to an FID applicant. A recent Supreme Court decision eliminated a requirement that an applicant show need for an LTC.
All license applicants must complete a firearms safety training program.
Firearms licensees must report their address and any change of address to the Firearms Record Bureau.
Machine Gun Licenses and the Machine Gun Ban
(o) No person shall be issued a license to carry or possess a machine gun in the commonwealth, except that a licensing authority or the colonel of state police may issue a machine gun license to:
(i) a firearm instructor certified by the municipal police training committee for the sole purpose of firearm instruction to police personnel;
(ii) a bona fide collector of firearms upon application or upon application for renewal of such license.
A machine gun license is a standalone license to own a machine gun, but only a machine gun that is not banned under the assault weapons ban or the federal machine gun ban. Machine guns are banned by federal law, except those manufactured before 1986. Additionally, Massachusetts was one of the first states to control bumpstocks which can cause legal semi-automatic guns to fire continuously like machine guns.
A family member or licensing authority who believes that a license holder may pose a risk to self of others may file a petition in court to require that person to surrender their weapons and ammunition to the licensing authority where they reside. The establishment of this process for obtaining “extreme risk protection orders” is one of the most recent improvements in our gun regulatory structure. For more discussion of our ERPO mechanism, please see this post.
Sales of firearms
All firearms transactions, including private transactions, must be reported to a central registry, the Firearms Records Bureau. The central records of who is licensed and what firearms they own are confidential, accessible only to law enforcement.
Massachusetts provides a licensing framework for dealers (Chapter 122 through 129) most importantly requiring that they comply with and enforce the LTC and FID rules, but also requiring a requirement that the guns they sell meet safety standards, related to:
- structural integrity and resistance to overheating
- possibility of accidental discharge
- possibility of firing more than one round per trigger pull
- barrel length and accuracy
The department of public safety maintains a roster of approved firearms.
Assault Weapons Ban
Assault weapons are banned in Massachusetts, except if otherwise lawfully possessed before September 13, 1994. The exception for pre-1994 weapons does mean that it is possible to legally acquire some older assault weapons in Massachusetts.
Section 131M. No person shall sell, offer for sale, transfer or possess an assault weapon or a large capacity feeding device that was not otherwise lawfully possessed on September 13, 1994. Whoever not being licensed under the provisions of section 122 violates the provisions of this section shall be punished, for a first offense, by a fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for not less than one year nor more than ten years, or by both such fine and imprisonment, and for a second offense, by a fine of not less than $5,000 nor more than $15,000 or by imprisonment for not less than five years nor more than 15 years, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
The provisions of this section shall not apply to: (i) the possession by a law enforcement officer; or (ii) the possession by an individual who is retired from service with a law enforcement agency and is not otherwise prohibited from receiving such a weapon or feeding device from such agency upon retirement.
- An LTC holder carrying a loaded firearm in a vehicle must keep it under their direct control.
- Firearms must be sold with safety devices to prevent discharge by unauthorized users — mechanical locks or more sophisticated devices. DPS publishes an approved list of such devices.
- Weapons must be stored in locked containers or locked with a safety device which is properly engaged.
- Carrying a firearm on to the premises of a school, college, or university without written authorization is unlawful. Chapter 269, Section 10, Paragraph (j).
- Knowingly possessing firearms from which the serial number has been removed is unlawful.
- Silencers are unlawful.
- Carrying a loaded firearm while intoxicated is unlawful.
- Carrying a loaded rifle or shotgun with rounds in the chamber on one’s person on a public way is unlawful and even an unloaded rifle or shotgun must be carried in a case on a public way.
- Firearms may not be discharged within 500 feet of a dwelling, except in indoor shooting ranges, etc.
- Special limitations apply in airport secure areas.
- There is limit (four) on the number of guns one can sell annually without requirement to be licensed as a dealer.
Previous Discussions on Gun Issues at Will Brownsberger.com
- Discussion of urban firearms violence.
- Discussion of legislation to study link between video games and violence.
- Summary of the major Massachusetts gun law reform in 2014, which was the legislature’s considered response to Sandy Hook
- A public brainstorming thread about what we could improve in Massachusetts in the wake of Sandy Hook; see also this summary of the thread.
- Browse all posts on gun issues.