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.


Related Discussions on Gun Issues at Will

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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  1. I am glad to see Mass. is one of the states in the lead on gun regulation. I personally believe in a ban on guns , but know that hunters want to hunt deer and ducks (why, I don’t know). So that’s my only exception, except for police and other safety personnel for whom it is appropriate. Due to pitiful Federal lack of action, it will be up to us as a state to do all we can. One other thing : “duty to warn.” I’m a retired social work but worked in Protective Services for elderly. When people present a risk of harm to themselves or others, people involved and police need to be notified. Not sure exactly how this policy is worded but it’s important. Also, the failure of the notification system in some national cases , and at more than one in Mass. indicates necessity to tighten this up so it works.

    1. The 2nd Amendment is one of our most cherished right and freedom. It gives everyone of us the ability to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our property. It keeps us free from the tyranny and oppression that many people are subjected to throughout the rest of the world. I will never willingly allow that to be taken away me. MA firearms laws have gone the way of CA and are unconstitutionally restrictive. Your choice is to accept it, leave the state, or spend thousands of dollars in a court of law to fight for your freedoms. For those who feel completely safe with police protection alone and don’t choose to exercise their 2nd Amendment right or want to surrender it, great for you! After all, when seconds count the police are only a few minutes away. I pray that I will never have to use deadly force to defend myself or my family and home ever in my lifetime. But if I have to, I would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six! Don’t tread on me!

  2. Thanks again, Will, for sharing your information. I like to believe that our democratic processes will ultimately keep us safe, and that an arsenal of guns is not needed. The current federal government is testing even my beliefs on that one, but I am so glad to be living in MA where, I believe, that we have strong, but reasonable, gun laws. I support ERPO, with the idea that its very existence would encourage everyone to notice and report something that could end up being a tragedy. No law will prevent every tragedy, but the U.S. should be embarrassed when compared to countries like Australia.

    1. A closer to home example — after the civil war, Southerners sought to disarm freed people. Returning black veterans bearing arms after World Ward II and actively resisting Ku Klux intimidation in the South was an important part of the fight to end Jim Crow in the 1950s.

      This is an uncomfortable thing for liberal gun control advocates (like me) to grapple with: There is a progressive history behind the second amendment which we cannot dismiss, however much we may now prefer to entirely trust the government for our protection. In the South in the 50s, the local police weren’t doing much to protect the black community, in fact some of the police were wearing sheets at night — and the black community needed weapons to protect themselves. For some great history on this era, check out Radio Free Dixie, Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power.

  3. I have my doubts about the effectiveness of the bump stock provision being narrow. I think that law should focus on any method of use of any device that would enable a semiautomatic weapon to be fired at a rate similar to an equivalent automatic weapon be banned.

  4. Some generalities seen over time:

    The majority of the comments here are very likely coming from emotive, reactionary, and unread individuals on federal and/or state firearms laws. I see comments from people who want police and government so far up inside their fellow neighbors for no apparent reason. Wake up, people! These are your neighbors who have done nothing wrong but you want in-home gun inspections, registries of personal property and other violations of the 4th Amendment.

    This is the same type of thinking that would lead some to say “throw xyz in jail, don’t waste time trying him, he’s obviously guilty!” And curtail the 6th Amendment for someone charged with a crime. The 6th has already been under attack on college campuses when any girl can destroy a boy’s future without him ever setting foot in a court of law.

    Every “loophole” that is trying to be covered is also stripping away a certain amount of liberty. Tax deductions may someday be considered “loopholes” and that will be the end of them. Think of your neighbors before you legislate as some day your neighbors may legislate against you.

    With all that in mind, ERPOs give the state more power over something they can already do. What ERPOs don’t do is remove the danger of the person using other means. As far as the state is concerned, the person can go ahead and kill themselves via overdose, intentional cutting of vessels, etc; but as long as they don’t use a firearm, then it’s okay. The ERPO has no stipulation for mental help or access to it, but as long as you don’t kill yourself with a gun, then it’s okay. Motto: the state cares not for the individual with this ERPO proposition. This may be sad for all of you who think government will always take care of you.

  5. Have you tried reading and implementing the recommendations of the Secret Service in the Safe School Initiative Final Report?

    That seems like the place grownups would start…

  6. Do what ever it takes to keep guns off the streets !

    Approximately 10 years ago it was a big deal …… if one had possession of an illegal gun….. automatically ( if proven guilty) at least a one year in jail .

    We hear a lot of gun violence but NEVER about the sentences given to these people with illegal guns….. of course if there a crime involved the penalty should be 5 years plus the crime !

    Basically gun control is a JOKE ….! We hear & see very regularly gun crimes committed ( much in the “ inner city” but every where in the State . Apparently if one wants to get a gun ( lots of loop holes ) it’s NOT as difficult as we would like to believe ! MUCH IS NEEDED TO BE LEGISLATED——— True enforceable Law’s !!!

  7. Go ahead. I dare you to watch and listen to this outstanding speech by Delegate Nick Freitas in VA…

    who articulately explains why some in the legislature choose to ignore facts and meaningful solutions, and instead use fear, emotion and personal attack to promote an ineffective gun control agenda.

    Our Country desperately needs more patriots running for office like Nick Freitas. God how I wish we had someone this brave in MA.

    2018 03 02 Delegate Nick Freitas Speech on Floor of House of Delegates

  8. Our gun laws have been effective. People commit dreadful murders in Massachusetts, as happened in the Winchester Public Library recently, but not so much with guns as in other states. As far as I can recall, we haven’t suffered mass murders, as have happened at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Las Vegas, Denver, and in Florida. But the epidemic of gun violence cannot be handled only on a state level. It is too easy to import guns into Massachusetts from New Hampshire, for example.

    It would be best if we could repeal the Second Amendment. Failing that we need a national ban on assault weapons, other powerful rifles, and concealed weapons. We also need more counselors and social workers, who can advise people on controlling their anger. My wife and I just watched “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.” It is a gripping movie and a cautionary tale about people unable to control their anger.

    1. Mr. Aaronson, As the founding fathers well knew, with no Second Amendment, there would be no true check on government power. Don’t you want our country to be able to remain free if a deranged dictator (maybe someone like, oh, Donald Trump) took power and tried to eliminate civil rights? The Second Amendment guarantees we can all have the freedom to vote, the right of free speech and a free press, and the right to practice your religion. Study history and note what inevitably happens when governments disarm their people. Again, the founding fathers knew it from first hand experience and built a very good check and balance into our Bill of Rights.

      Oh — and how many LAWFUL concealed carriers have ever bothered you? Illegally concealing a weapon and using it to do harm are already crimes everywhere in the country.

      1. Law abiding citizen,

        Over 90,000 people a year die in this country from gun shot wounds. It is an epidemic, much worse than the flu epidemic.

        When is the last time the government tried to deprive us of our freedom to speak, to assemble, to vote, to criticize Donald Trump, etc.

        Guns were tolerable when people lived miles from each other. Now when people live next to each other, and tempers flare, they are not. The gun epidemic is not a mental health problem. It is a problem of too many guns and too much anger. We can’t do much to control anger, but we can take away guns, which are also used to kill harmless animals.

        1. Michael Aronson,

          Can you provide a source for that 90,000 number? Even Everytown for Gun Safety reports a much lower number, like 13,000.

          Take out cities like Chicago, Baltimore, DC, St. Louis with bad gang and drug problems and the number is substantially smaller again.

          As for the government suppressing rights, how about the 1st Amendment fight that clarified the right to film a police officer conducting their duties?

          or the MA goverment trying to prevent people from possessing NON-lethal weapons for self defense?

          The ACLU argues that voter suppression, through laws, gerrymandering or other government tactics is a real and present danger.

          In reality, the “gun violence rate” has declined since the 1990s.

        2. The number is approximately 30,00 and 2/3 of those are suicides. Given that the suicide rates in other developed countries are similar or much higher in many cases (like Japan), there’s no evidence to show that lack of guns actually leads to lower suicide rates.

          Besides, does it really make sense to remove a right from everyone to prevent a tiny minority from self harm?

          1. Yes, limiting (not taking away) the “right” to bear arms to prevent a “tiny minority” from killing dozens or hundreds of people with guns does make sense. It makes loads of sense. It’s the only thing that makes sense! And believe me when I say that the knowledge that “law abiding citizens” are carrying concealed weapons makes me feel incredibly unsafe and afraid. I do not want to live among those people. No one has the “right” to put me in such a state of fear on some quixotic, misguided notion that that person will never reveal or discharge his weapon inappropriately. As for “responsible gun owners,” there are such people only when the common sense limits that the NRA and other 2nd Amendment hard liners refuse to accept as legitimate (like background checks, waiting periods, gun show sales restrictions, assault weapon bans, armor piercing ammunition bans, registration requirements) are in place and enforced. This is what makes a gun owner “responsible,” not what each individual gun owner decides for himself. Would you accept that I can drive just because I decide that I can? Would you rely on me as a good doctor or a plumber just because I say I am dependable? I wouldn’t. And I don’t. And I don’t trust people who say “Trust me, I’m one of the good guys.” Not if they won’t agree that some of those so-called ‘good guys’ could have been stopped from killing people had stronger gun laws been in place.

      2. law abiding citizen: can you document your claim that “As the founding fathers well knew, with no Second Amendment, there would be no true check on government power.”? The text specifically says that a militia is “necessary to the security of a free State” (emphasis added), not to make it easy for people to overthrow the government.

        Note also that any claim that the founding fathers were of one mind is nonsense, just like saying “The people of Massachusetts believe …”; they were scattered over a thousand-mile span, with wildly different interests and philosophies.

    2. Do you really believe that criminals observe the gun laws or any laws? I don’t. It is terrible that the woman who was killed had absolutely no way to defend herself…she might still be alive today.

      In fact, no one there was able to help her.

      The overwhelming majority of murders nationwide are not at all committed with firearms, they are committed with knives, hands and blunt objects.

      Statistically, there is no epidemic of gun violence.