Massachusetts Gun Laws

Overall, does Massachusetts have strong gun laws?

As compared to other states, yes. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rates Massachusetts an A- and ranks it 4th in the country, behind California, New Jersey and Connecticut. According to Guns and Ammo (writing from the gun owners perspective), we rank 49th in the country, ahead only of New York. Some other countries, where regulation is not constrained by the constitution, have much stronger laws.

Does Massachusetts ban assault weapons?

Yes. In Massachusetts, It is unlawful to sell or possess an assault weapon unless it was lawfully possessed prior to September 13, 1994. Massachusetts is one of only seven states that ban assault weapons. Massachusetts laws also banslarge capacity feeding devices” — ammunition magazines that can hold over ten rounds. Additionally, Massachusetts was one of the first states to control bumpstocks which can cause legal semi-automatic guns to fire continuously like machine guns.

How does Massachusetts define the term “assault weapon”?

The Massachusetts definition tracks the definition that the federal government used when it temporarily banned assault weapons. Roughly, it includes semi-automatic rifles and pistols that accept larger detachable ammunition magazines. However, the definition further limits the term to weapons that have specific additional features, which creates room (or arguably, a loophole) for weapons that resemble assault weapons closely, but do not have the specific banned features. In 2016, Attorney General Healey notified gun dealers that she would begin reading the term more broadly than it had previously been read. There has been controversy about her reading of the law, but it does appear to have eliminated sales of many weapons that resemble assault weapons. Fully automatic weapons, which unlike semi-automatic assault weapons can fire a continuous stream of bullets, have long been tightly restricted under Massachusetts law and, to a lesser degree, under federal law.

Can one possess a gun in Massachusetts without a license?

No. It is a crime that can lead to imprisonment to possess a gun without a license. The two main categories of license are the Firearms Identification Card which allows possession of basic rifles and shotguns and the License to Carry which allows possession of larger capacity rifles and also hand guns.

What is needed to obtain a license to possess a gun in Massachusetts?

Licenses require completion of prescribed training in firearms safety. Application must be made in person to the police chief in the community where one lives or works. The application requires disclosure of prior criminal, domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health hospitalization history. The application requires fingerprints and other identifying information for the chief to do a background check to verify the absence of such history. Significant history in these categories is disqualifying for all categories of license. As to applications for licenses beyond a basic FID card, the chief has broad discretion to deny an application if he has evidence that the applicant may be unsuitable (even in the absence of specific disqualifying history). Licensees must report any change of address.

What tracking occurs when a licensee actually acquires a gun?

All firearms transactions in Massachusetts, including transactions among private parties, must be reported to a central registry, the Firearms Records Bureau. The development of a central registry, accumulating transfer records, was initially controversial. However, the records of who is licensed and what firearms they own are not subject to the public records law (see clause 26(j) of G.L. Ch.4, §7).

How do Massachusetts licensing and transfer rules compare to federal rules?

At the federal level, there is no licensing requirement for gun owners. Background checks are required, but only for sales by dealers. Private sales, including sales at gun shows, do not require background checks. In the absence of universally enforced national background checks, it is possible in many states to acquire a gun without going through a background check. A recent study estimated that:

22% of current U.S. gun owners who acquired a firearm within the past 2 years did so without a background check.

Additionally, while licensed dealers are required to keep records of their sales, there is no central registry of sales. If, to solve a crime, investigators need to trace of sales of a gun, they need to place a series of calls to dealers. The trace may dead end through unrecorded private sales.

Are there other safety rules specific to Massachusetts?

Yes, through the years, Massachusetts has put a number of additional protections in place:

What more can we do in Massachusetts?

The top agenda item for gun safety advocates in Massachusetts is to make it easier to confiscate weapons when a person appears to have become emotionally unstable. House 3081 would allow relatives, health care providers, law enforcement officers and certain others to go to court to obtain an “Extreme Risk Protective Order” if they can show that a gun owner poses a “significant danger” to himself or others. If a judge approves the ERPO, it will result in immediate suspension of the owner’s license and confiscation of his weapons.

Why haven’t we already enacted an ERPO law?

The idea makes sense and I support it, but there is not a legislative consensus on it yet. Some gun owners argue that the law may be abused (see comments on my post on the subject). I’m confident in the judges on our bench and believe that they will not grant ERPOs except in appropriate cases of actual danger.

Additionally, gun advocates argue that the ERPO tool would unnecessarily duplicate other tools available to remove weapons when people appear dangerous — notably, domestic violence restraining orders, involuntary mental health commitments and the police chiefs’ discretionary power to revoke licenses. Indeed, these tools would be available and effective in many cases, but not in all cases. Domestic violence restraining orders are only available when there is a direct threat in a domestic context. Involuntary mental health commitments require a specific medical finding of mental illness, and even if that finding is readily obtainable they do not directly result in confiscation of firearms. That requires action by the police chief to suspend the license. Police chiefs do have broad power to suspend a license with or without a medical finding of illness. However, the suspended licensee need not surrender their firearms if they appeal the suspension. Some legislators suggest that, as a matter of practice, police chiefs act swiftly to confiscate weapons in many such cases. Whether or not this true and lawful, an ERPO would likely offer a cleaner path to safety in many cases and I do support the concept.

Resources

Related Discussions on Gun Issues at Will Brownsberger.com

This post was originally published on January 3, 2013 and was last updated on March 5, 2018.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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96 Comments

  1. I don’t believe any other measures other than the authorities take action when notified and they were notified many times over by school officials and police and did not take action to prevent the awful shooting that occurred a few weeks ago. that was the failure, not the gun laws we have in place.

  2. Thank you, Senator Brownsberger, for a very comprehensive report. One of the things I worry about is guns coming in from other states, which have laxer gun laws. I worry about the trade show loophole.

    1. Alice, there is no trade show or gun show loophole in Massachusetts. Every firearm sale or transfer must be recorded with the state – from https://mircs.chs.state.ma.us/fa10/action/home?app_context=home&app_action=presentHome

      “Massachusetts General Law c. 140, §§128A and 128B, requires all individuals who sell, transfer, inherit, or lose a firearm to report the sale, transfer, inheritance, or loss of the firearms to the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services Firearms Records Bureau (FRB).

      It is unlawful to conduct a personal sale or transfer of a weapon to anyone other than an individual lawfully licensed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

  3. So what is in common with most of these mass shootings. What is common is that they been raised without a father in their life. Fatherlessness is a Euge problem in Massachusetts can help solve this bypassing house bill 3090 the Child Centered Family Law Bill how to help bring Fathers back into kids lives . As for other gun violence what can be done . We can enforce existing gun laws and not allow people who use weapons to plea-bargain to a lesser sentence . We can make it a much tougher penalty for people who buy guns for people and give them to other people and make that a crime and enforce it

  4. Does Massachusetts law currently require periodic inspection by law enforcement to ensure that firearms are stored according to regulations (i.e., locked in a container or using a tamper-resistant locking mechanism)?

    How are transfers of firearms managed with regard to estates and passing them to family? Are background checks and licenses required for the recipient family member before the firearm is allowed to pass into their possession?

    It sounds like MA law is quite robust, and efforts should be made to bring neighboring states on board with similar legislation to prevent situations like in Illinois, where a large percentage of firearms used in crimes are brought in from neighboring states with lax laws.

    1. I don’t think the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution allows the MA State Police to kick in my door and perform a spot inspection on how I have my firearms stored. I could be wrong since the Constitution is open to debate these days by liberal judges and politicians. As a responsible and law abiding firearms owner I can assure all that they are ALWAYS safe and secure!

  5. I am worried about the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017 which I believe has passed the House of Representatives. It would allow someone with a concealed carry permit from any state to bring the weapon with them into Massachusetts (unless they fly here, assuming they do not ship it and pick it up on arrival), even if they have not had to meet any of the requirements Massachusetts has established

  6. I hope the Legislature supports AG Healey’s efforts and rejects bill of Sen. Tarr to limit her efforts.
    Urban police departments need all the help they can get to remove guns from their streets and neighborhoods and I wondering what additional tools the Chiefs of Massachusetts 25 largest municipalities would like to have to lesson the risk of gun deaths, including additional technical resources.

  7. WILL, ANY SALE BY A FFL HOLDER A GUN SHOW REQUIRES THAT DEALEE TO CONDUCT A BACKGROUND CHECK THE SAME AS IF HE/SHE WAS MAKEING THE SALE IN THE LICINSED PREMESIS. OUT OF STATE DEALERS ARE REQUIRED TO MAKE A TRANSFER THROUGH A LICENSED MA DEALER. A INDIVIDUAL WHO IS NOT A DEALER, AS I REMEMBER BACK WHEN THE BLUE CARDS WERE USED FOR INDIVIDUAL TRANSFER AND WAS LIMITER TO 5 OR 6 GUNS TO BE DISPLAIED ON A TABLE, WITH THE PRICE OF A TABLE TODAY, ITS REALEY NOT WORTH IT TO AN INDIVIDUAL AND THE CARDS HAVE BEEN REPLACED BY THE TRANSFER OPTION ON THE NET OF PUBLIC SAFETY. HOPE THIS IS OF SOME HELP. RICHARD

  8. Pass legislation enabling ERPOs. They may overlap with other protections in part, but they also fill in potentially lethal gaps.

    … then figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of bad guys.

  9. An ERPO seems to eliminate loopholes and provide a path for rapid removal that the other methods do not. It makes sense to me!

  10. I would respectfully suggest that Maura Healey’s ban of copycat assault weapons should now be written into state law, to eliminate any future risk that it will be overturned.

    Also, the state is currently tracking gun sales, but not gun owners. The gun sales database is not well maintained, and in many instances is inaccurate.

    http://lexington.wickedlocal.com/news/20160312/state-tracks-gun-sales-not-owners

    Rather than registering sales, the state should register guns, in a similar manner to how vehicles are registered and kept track of.

    Another problem is that of illegal guns used, typically, in city crimes. Simply put, the Police takes too long to trace the weapons of the crime – and in more than half of the cases these turn out to be out of state guns, from New Hampshire and Maine.

    http://lexington.wickedlocal.com/article/20160312/NEWS/160318038

    We do have draconian laws on the books in regards to illegal guns. But these laws are not enforced, and one suspects it’s because our District Attorneys are finding it convenient to give a pass in many cases of people found to carry an illegal gun.

    To address this, I would suggest legislation mandating that the Police and the DAs maintain statistics of people found to carry illegal guns – and statistics of how many of these cases led to arrest, arraignment, court trial, conviction.

    With these statistics in hand, we’d be better able to tell if our DAs are doing the job mandated by law.

    1. You have hit the nail squarely on the head. Many people are arrested by the police and charged with illegal possession of firearms, ammunition, magazines, etc. Make no mistake, the arrests are being made. However, in the interests of judicial expedience, the charges are dropped, or reduced in order to induce the offender to accept a plea bargain. Most of the time, this eliminates any time in custody for the firearms offenses. It would be interesting to see a study done comparing the number of firearms arrests with the number of convictions, pleas, and actual sentences

        1. Will, what gun charges exactly? Unlicensed possession of a firearm, unlicensed possession of ammunition in the commission of a crime? How will more laws make a difference when criminals don’t follow the existing ones?

          Also, can you please provide a source for this statement?

          1. Source: Suffolk County House of Corrections.

            I haven’t seen the stats on all counties, but since we reduced the scope of the school zone law, most people serving mandatories are drunk drivers (predominant in some counties) and gun violators.

            Addendum

            I got an update on this as of March 2018. Middlesex County had 72 inmates serving mandatory minimums of which 24 were serving gun charges. In Suffolk, 50 were serving mandatory minimums for gun charges.

    2. “Also, the state is currently tracking gun sales, but not gun owners. The gun sales database is not well maintained, and in many instances is inaccurate.
      .
      .
      Rather than registering sales, the state should register guns, in a similar manner to how vehicles are registered and kept track of.”

      I’m sorry but you’re incorrect here. The state tracks every transfer of a gun and that information includes the make, model and serial number of the gun as well as the name and license number of the seller and buyer. Yes, I said “license number”. All legal gun owners in the state are licensed. If a licensed gun owner were to sell a gun to a non-licensed person, the state would have all the information they need.

  11. Explore, research, and understand the impact of medication-induced psychosis on mass shootings.

  12. A central online registry of firearms should be available to law enforcement personnel. The cumbersome method of making phone calls to a series of dealers is antiquated.
    A census inquiry for firearms should be sent out yearly, asking if the gun is still owned by the original purchaser at his/her registration address. Mail this [separate] form to gun owners at the same time (January) as the census form for persons and pets.
    A photo of the person purchasing a gun should be taken and placed on file with a photo of the firearm in addition to the text description.
    Massachusetts legislators are to be applauded for their work in establishing sensible requirements like safety devices and lockable gun storage requirements.
    It would be helpful to collaborate with neighboring states to implement shared gun registry records.

    1. Sale records are available to law enforcement if needed for a criminal investigation by making a request to the BATFE. This is actually a very speedy and efficient process.

  13. My sense is that with gun control as with heath insurance, Massachusetts is a leader and has done what a state can to tightly regulate matters within our borders.

    After sharing a personal civics lesson on the benefit of gun control with my daughter, she urged me to apply for a LTC. I did, and it took months to get the license approved by my PD. That seems appropriate to me.

  14. How do we prevent federal “conceal carry” laws from legalizing other state residents from bringing guns into MA without an MA permit?

  15. I support the ERPO option. Thank you Will. This issue means a lot to me as a former Newtown student.

    1. I also support the ERPO legislation. I do know of cases where people took their own lives using a gun. I do not know if an ERPO could have prevented their deaths in particular but I do think it could decrease access to guns by some suicidal individuals and thus save lives.

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