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 bans “large 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:
- A licensing framework for dealers, including a requirement that guns sold by dealers be approved as meeting 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
- A requirement that handguns and large capacity rifles sold in the Commonwealth be sold with a safety locking device of some type — DPS publishes an approved list of such devices.
- A requirement that all firearms be secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper resistant lock
- A limit (four) on the number of guns one can sell privately without requirement to be licensed as a dealer.
- A prohibition on the use shot suppressors (commonly known as silencers, although suppressed shots are still quite loud), which some gun advocates have sought to repeal.
- A planning framework to assure school safety.
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.
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence — federal gun law page
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence — state law page
- Heller opinion on the Second Amendment
- McDonald opinion on the Second Amendment
- Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, Background Check System
- Massachusetts Department of Public Safety Firearms Page
- Massachusetts Department of Public Safety Licensing information details.
- Massachusetts Gun Owners Action League
- Massachusetts School Safety Planning (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education).
Related 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.