For someone in Milford with a clean criminal record and certifiably sound mind, getting a license to carry a concealed weapon is not much tougher than filling out some paperwork and waiting for a background check.
Not in Newton. Novice gun owners there cannot get an unrestricted license to conceal and carry a weapon — even if they have a spotless record. “It’s been consistent policy: not for first-time applicants,” Newton police Lieutenant Edward Aucoin said. “I’ve had people who come in here and want to get a license without having shot a gun in their life.”
That difference, played out across the state, reflects a patchwork system in which geography, and gut instinct, can determine whether someone obtains what is known as an unrestricted Class A license, which allows them to carry not only a concealed weapon but loaded, large-capacity handguns, rifles, and shotguns without limits on use. It is the broadest gun license available under state law, held by 240,000 people.
Although applicants must clear a state background check — no felony convictions or restraining orders, for example — the final say goes to local police chiefs, who have discretion to reject any resident not deemed “suitable” for a license to carry. They also can limit permits to target practice, sport, hunting, or to people whose jobs are thought to put them at risk.
“I don’t put restrictions on licenses, period,” said Thomas O’Loughlin, the police chief in Milford, a town of 28,000 people that had 1,395 licenses to carry last year. “To me, it would be like the Registry restricting driver’s licenses and saying, ‘We’ll let you drive your car only to and from work.’ ”
But Newton police routinely restrict those gun licenses, usually by limiting them to target shooting and hunting. The city had 1,147 active Class A licenses in 2012 — 18 percent fewer than Milford despite being three times bigger.
Newton police, however, are willing to change their minds over time. Gun owners often are allowed to carry concealed weapons after six years, when licenses come up for renewal, if they have used the weapon appropriately and remain within state guidelines, Aucoin said.
Unrestricted licenses to carry a gun, which cost $100 and must be sought in an applicant’s place of residence, comprise about three-quarters of the gun permits in Massachusetts, according to data provided by the state Department of Public Safety. All Class A licenses — those with restrictions and those without — make up 82.4 percent of permits.
By contrast, Class B permits account for only 1.3 percent of the licenses in Massachusetts. That permit does not allow a gun to be carried concealed, but allows the purchase of all weapons sanctioned under the Class A license except for a large-capacity handgun.
“If I’m spending $100, I might as well get the gold card,” said Milford police Sergeant Michael Pasacane, describing how people approach the gun-license process. He oversees the application procedure.
The lowest-level gun permit, a Firearms Identification Card, allows the purchase and possession of small-capacity rifles or shotguns. A handgun cannot be bought or owned with such a license.
Nearly everyone interested in the licensing process — gun-control activists, gun-rights groups, and police — agree that the state lacks a consistent standard for issuing licenses to carry. They also acknowledge that enforcing restrictions can be difficult, and that the courts might have to sort out town-to-town differences regarding police discretion.
“I think that the [licensing] statute is written in a way that is open for interpretation, and that many people, including the courts, have struggled to explain what that language means,” said Jason Guida, a former director of the state Firearms Record Bureau, which maintains a database of licenses, sales by gun dealers, and private transfers.
At issue is language that allows police chiefs to grant unrestricted Class A permits “if it appears that the applicant is a suitable person to be issued such license, and that the applicant has good reason to fear injury to his person or property.”
The term “suitable person” is so broad and vague, gun-rights advocates argue, that an applicant can clear all the specific, statutory hurdles for crime and mental-health issues and still be denied a license.
A chief “might not like red-headed people,” said Brent Carlton, president of Comm2A, a gun-rights organization that filed suit last month in US District Court in Boston against four Massachusetts police chiefs who refused to issue unrestricted licenses to six plaintiffs. By limiting the licenses, Comm2A says, the chiefs denied the applicants the right to carry a weapon for self-defense.Continued...