Gun owners are complaining that local police chiefs have far too much leeway in considering applications for the state's concealed weapons license, creating a frustrating patchwork of regulations that varies from community to community.
In a letter to the state attorney general's office this spring, a statewide advocacy group for gun owners complained that police chiefs put up roadblocks that are unnecessary and possibly illegal for anyone seeking a "license to carry." The Class A license allows the holder to carry a concealed handgun or rifles or shotguns with a large capacity for ammunition.
"All communities should be on the same page," said Ralph Carrick, a 60-year-old Peabody resident who has had a license to carry for 16 years.
In his town, gun owners had been required to receive safety training every other time they renewed their license, meaning they would be hit with a course fee of roughly $100 every 12 years. Peabody ended the practice recently, but Carrick says he isn't placated.
"Things can change overnight. It depends on the chief," he said.
To get a Class A license, state law says, an applicant must be 21, a US citizen, and never have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor with a sentence longer than two years.
They must also complete a firearms safety course. The license is good for six years.
But the law also leaves the licensing process in the hands of local police chiefs and gives municipalities and the chiefs broad discretion in having applicants meet other requirements.
For instance, some communities require applicants to take a firearms certification course every time they reapply for a license. Some chiefs require letters of recommendation or letters from physicians, charge a higher fee than required by state statute, or force applicants to join gun clubs. Gun owners also may face additional Class A license restrictions that might limit them to hunting or sport shooting.
Everett requires two letters of recommendation, while Haverhill asks for a letter from an employer. Brookline orders licensed owners to pass a gun certification test when they renew their license every six years. Boston requires membership in a gun club. Andover requires a note from a doctor.
Some reasons for denial are specific - violent felons are not eligible - but others are open-ended. For example, the law allows chiefs to decide how "suitable" a person is.
Some chiefs feel that a person charged, but not convicted, of assault and battery might qualify for a license; others disagree.
For their part, local chiefs shrug off the complaints. Their requirements are legal, and it's good that local communities have some control over who is armed within their borders, they said.
"I don't think two is unreasonable to ask for," Everett Police Chief Steven A. Mazzie said of the letters required by his department, noting the responsibilities associated with gun ownership. It's just another way to get a feel for the person applying for the license, he said.
Peabody Chief Robert L. Champagne said he changed his policy on taking safety courses because of a "little push-back" from gun enthusiasts concerned about the cost of the courses.
The chief said he had expected that over time those who ran the courses would introduce refresher sessions, which would be cheaper. That never happened, he said.
So he reconsidered and now requires a single education course when someone first gets a license, as the law states.
"I still think it's a good idea" to take the courses occasionally, he said, noting police officers take the courses at least once a year.
The Gun Owners' Action League, a Northborough-based nonprofit that is an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, sent a letter in March to Attorney General Martha Coakley's office complaining about the inconsistencies.
The letter, signed by James L. Wallace, GOAL's executive director, said licensed owners are not being treated equally, pointing out that communities such as Cambridge, Holden, and Methuen charge more than the $100 allowed by law, and Andover and Lawrence require notes from doctors.
In a follow-up to his letter, Wallace met last week with Coakley to press his group's request that police chiefs statewide use uniform standards to judge gun-license applicants.
Melissa Karpinsky, a spokeswoman for Coakley, described the meeting as productive and said, "We're in the process of reviewing the concerns" raised by Wallace.
GOAL has already won one victory. The organization complained in November to the state inspector general's office that a number of communities were charging more than the law's $100 figure, with Cambridge's fee at $120. Cambridge has since trimmed the fee to $100.
The issue is a hot topic among gun owners.
An online forum, northeastshooters.com, has posted a color-coded map of Massachusetts showing the ease or difficulty in obtaining a license in each community, based on feedback from members.
A database of license denials provides partial evidence that standards vary widely. Tough communities, such as , Brookline, Lowell, Quincy, and Revere, denied 6 to 9 percent of applicants between 2004 and 2007, according to figures from the Criminal History Systems Board.
"We're pretty strict," said Revere Chief Terence Reardon. His department turned down 8 percent of applicants for a Class A license between 2004 and 2007, according to the state figures, second only to the small town of Berkley, which turned down 9 percent.
A big problem for applicants is either lying or leaving out information about any court proceedings in their past. "We toe a hard line," Reardon said.
At the other end of the scale, more than 80 departments showed zero denials, and many others had only a handful.
However, the figures are missing some nuances that make them harder to interpret, especially for communities where it appears there are few or no denials.
In some communities, a prescreening process allows applicants facing rejection to back out before submitting a formal request and paying a fee.
Part of the problem is confusion among gun owners and even chiefs about what exactly the restrictions mean.
That's understandable because the law does not define the restrictions, said Lee's police chief, Ronald C. Glidden, who is also chairman of the state Gun Control Advisory Board, which is appointed by the governor and considered an authority on the issue.
"They may mean different things to different people because they are not a regulation," said Glidden. "That has been a problem historically since day one."
To reduce confusion and limit the range of Class A restrictions, a shorter list was developed about a year ago with four categories: target and hunting; sporting; employment; and other.
It means, for instance, that a license granted for sporting can't be used for employment.
There are three additional levels of licenses issued by Massachusetts: the Class B license, which applies to nonconcealed handguns that carry less ammunition and large-capacity rifles and shotguns; an unrestricted Firearms Identification card, which applies to nonlarge-capacity rifles and shotguns; and a restricted Firearms Identification card, which allows the owner to carry a chemical repellent.
John Rosenthal, founder of the nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence organization in Massachusetts, said he is happy with the way the law works now.
"We make it at least a little bit harder for criminals and terrorists to get guns, and we have the lowest firearm fatality rate in the nation, second only to Hawaii. Gun laws work in this state," he said.
Others take a dim of view of what they see as the obstacles thrown up by police departments.
"They are trying to discourage you, and they put as many roadblocks in your path as possible, to give you a hard time," said Jim Lynch, 38, of Wilton, N.H.
A former Boston resident, Lynch said he moved two years ago because of, among other things, the city's obstructionist licensing policies.
Lynch and others pointed out that Boston requires applicants to take a gun certification course at a city facility, using city weapons.
"It's clearly geared toward discouraging people," he said.
Matt Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.