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Gun permits drop 25% in Bay State

Culture shift, fees are cited

Edward Arsenault, 70, of Fairhaven (with his wife, Carol) was denied a gun license renewal this year because he was convicted of stealing a chicken in 1946 when he was 9.
Edward Arsenault, 70, of Fairhaven (with his wife, Carol) was denied a gun license renewal this year because he was convicted of stealing a chicken in 1946 when he was 9. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)

The number of licensed gun owners in Massachusetts has declined by more than a quarter in the past six years, a falloff driven by restrictive laws, higher licensing fees, and cultural change, according to police officers and gun owners.

The drop is especially dramatic in the eastern part of the state and in urban areas. The number of licensed gun owners fell at least 30 percent in Boston, Springfield, Quincy, Fall River, and Waltham. It dropped at least 20 percent in more than 220 of the state's 351 communities.

The number of licensed owners climbed in about 40 mostly smaller communities in the central and western parts of the state. It also rose in a handful of eastern suburbs and cities, such as Weston and Brockton, according to data from the state's Criminal History Systems Board, which tracks licensed gun owners.

Overall, the number of people in Massachusetts with a license to carry a weapon has declined from about 330,000 to about 240,000 from 2001 to 2007. Over the past three years, the number of licensed owners has declined by 15,000.

While some law enforcement officials praise the decline, police, politicians and antigun advocates caution that there are still plenty of illegal guns on the streets, contributing to a steady pace of violence.

"Fewer firearms on the street makes life safer for everyone," said Robert F. Crowley, Quincy's police chief. "The average citizen who has a gun 24-7 I don't believe has the experience, knowledge, and training to know when and if they should use a firearm."

Many attribute the drop to a 1998 state law, the Massachusetts Gun Control Act, and subsequent changes, which dramatically changed the gun licensing landscape by increasing fees and making it more difficult for people with old legal problems to renew their license.

It now costs $100 for a six-year license for a handgun, shotgun, or rifle. It costs $25 for a six-year permit for a chemical repellent, with no renewal fee. A lifetime permit for a rifle used to cost $2. It can take about two months to get a license.

"People come in to renew and are shocked it's $100," said Keith MacPherson, deputy police chief in Waltham.

Other New England states do not appear to have experienced a similar drop, although comparisons are hampered because permitting and records differ widely.

Limited data show that the number of nonresident permits have increased by more than half in Maine and have more than doubled in New Hampshire since 2000 and 2001, respectively. Pistol permits are down slightly in Rhode Island and are up slightly in Connecticut.

"We saw a big increase after 9/11," said Sergeant William Gomane of Maine's State Police.

The law in Massachusetts was changed in 1998, and in later years, so that anyone convicted of a violent felony is disqualified from ever obtaining a state license. Those convicted of a misdemeanor or a nonviolent felony are also disqualified for five years following conviction or release. People convicted of assault and battery on family members, or crimes involving drugs or guns, are also disqualified.

"A slew of people are now prohibited," said Dennis Collier, a police captain in Revere.

Even before the new law, license applications were filed with local police chiefs, who have some discretion for granting or denying licenses. For instance, a person whose state and local background check shows he or she has been on trial for violent crimes, but not convicted, can be denied a license by the chief.

With even tighter restrictions, some gun owners have been infuriated, considering it an unjust and a transparent attempt to deny honest hard-working residents their right to own a gun.

Edward Arsenault, 70, of Fairhaven, was turned down for his license renewal earlier this year because he had been convicted in juvenile court of stealing a chicken from a chicken coop when he was 9 years old, in 1946.

Arsenault said he barely remembers the incident.

"I have no problem with gun control or background checks, but let's not get ridiculous," said Arsenault, a gun license owner since the 1980s. "Something done when someone is 9 years old carries over until they are 70? We're not talking about robbing a bank; we're talking about stealing a chicken."

He appealed the ruling to New Bedford District Court in April and won, at least partly thanks to Fairhaven Police Chief Gary Souza, who testified on his behalf. It was the first time in more than four years on the job that Souza stood up for someone who had been denied a license, he said.

In Boston, the number of licensed owners fell from 7,577 in 2001 to 4,374 this year, a drop of 42 percent. In the same period, gun licenses in Cambridge dropped 25 percent to 782; 71 percent to 484 in Brookline, and 33 percent to 1,150 in Newton, state records show.

"We're pleased that the number of gun owners has decreased in our city, but the real issue is illegal guns, and we need more laws to deal with illegal guns in our cities," Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston said in a statement.

Mayor James E. Harrington of Brockton, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national organization, said that while it is good fewer firearms are around, the bigger problem is guns that make their way to the street illegally. He would like more restrictions on bulk out-of-state sales of guns by dealers.

John E. Rosenthal, founder of nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence, said the drop in ownership is primarily because of the law, but might also be because of increased awareness of gun safety and violence. Maybe "moms who are the primary caregivers are concerned about guns in the home and maybe they are influencing the men in the home," Rosenthal said.

The drop did not surprise Andrew Arulanandan, a spokesman for the 4-million-member National Rifle Association.

He attributed the reduction to higher fees. "When you add additional taxes on any universe of people, there are going to be people who are forced to give up whatever pursuit that is being taxed. The victims here are the people with limited means and not the criminals. The criminals won't stand in line to . . . pay the tax."

Don Hunt, owner of Hunter's Trading Post, a gun shop in Weymouth, thinks the dropoff is partly because of negative media stories, which he said poison young people's minds toward firearms.

"This is not a gun sport friendly state," he said.

Attitudes toward firearms vary widely. Many people in rural areas and in the western part of the state enjoy hunting and guns.

In Chester, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires, "the joke is, you don't live in Chester unless you own a gun," said Police Chief Ronald Minor. The town of 1,300 has about 185 licensed gun owners. Owning a gun "is like second nature, like having a car," Minor said. "It's just a different way of life."

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

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