Island police chiefs set policy for licenses to carry firearms
Massachusetts firearms laws, some of the toughest in the Nation, give significant discretion to local police chiefs across the state to determine what if any restrictions to apply to individuals seeking to own and carry a firearm.
As a whole, Martha's Vineyard's rural heritage is reflected in the fact that more than 1,254 residents hold some type of firearms license. However, of the six Island towns, Oak Bluffs is the most restrictive when it comes to issuing a license to carry a concealed weapon.
• Completion of a firearms safety course is required to qualify for any class of firearms license, but it is not required for a restricted FID, valid only for defensive sprays.
• An FID card allows a person to purchase or possess a rifle or shotgun, ammunition, Mace and pepper spray.
• A class B license allows a person to purchase and possess non-large capacity rifles, shotguns and non-large capacity handguns approved by the state.
• A class A license covers all rifles, shotguns and handguns and is the only license under which a person may carry a loaded pistol in public.
• A firearm stored in a house must be kept in a locked container or equipped with a trigger lock unless it is under the direct control of the owner.
• A licensed gun owner who moves must notify, in writing, the chief who issued his permit, the chief of police in his new town and the Executive Director of the Criminal History Systems Board by certified mail within 30 days.
• A Massachusetts resident may sell a gun provided that he lawfully possesses it with an appropriate FID card or LTC, and the person buying the gun is also properly licensed.
• Gun owners are required to report any loss or theft.
• An adult who has been convicted of a violent crime, a drug offense, felony, or any game law involving the use of a gun must wait five years to qualify for an FID card and is permanently ineligible for a LTC.
The Massachusetts Gun Control Act of 1998 significantly changed the licensing requirements affecting the purchase or ownership of any type of firearm.
In the past, firearms identification (FID) cards were issued for life. Gun owners now apply for one of three classes of license - an FID card, or a class A or B license to carry (LTC) - depending on the type of firearm they want to purchase, possess, or carry.
Of the 1,254 licensed Island gun owners, there are 788 class As, 98 class Bs, and 331 FIDs. There are also 9 holders of machine gun license, a category that includes collectors. Edgartown has the highest number of gun licenses, 269.
Local police chiefs act as the primary licensing authority in granting a permit to own or carry a firearm. But the willingness of police chiefs to issue a gun permit, including a class A LTC without restrictions, which allows a person to carry a concealed pistol for personal protection, varies among the state's cities and towns, including on the Vineyard. The four-page license application available at local police departments requires that an applicant provide proof of completion of a firearms safety course or hunter safety course. Class A licenses must be renewed every six years.
The state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security is responsible for processing firearms applications. The state gun law provides numerous lifetime exclusions under which an applicant would automatically not qualify for a firearms license.
But it is the local police chief who decides what if any restrictions he or she will apply to a class A LTC.
For example, a chief can decide to issue a class A LTC only for the purposes of target practice at a gun range. A class A LTC with no restrictions allows a gun owner to carry a concealed weapon. An applicant unhappy with a chief's decision can appeal to a judge, which is exactly what one Oak Bluffs gun owner did (see sidebar).
Contacted by The Martha's Vineyard Times, Island police chiefs said that in each case state law and knowledge of the community guides licensing decisions.
Aquinnah police chief Rhandi Belain said most of the firearms applications he receives are renewals. There are very few applications for new permits he said.
Applicants fill out a standard form and are subject to a background check. Not surprisingly in Martha's Vineyard's smallest town, Chief Belain said there is no blanket policy, rather each case is considered individually and on its own merits. "We know who they are and what they want it for," said Mr. Belain. "Very rarely do I throw a restriction on them."
When deciding to issue firearms permits Chilmark police chief Tim Rich says he has the benefit of more than three decades experience policing the same small town. "The town is small enough that I know most of the people that come in," said Chief Rich.
The use of computers makes finding information in an applicant's past that could have a bearing on the application process much easier, said Chief Rich. "If somebody has something bad in their background it's pretty easy to find it now," he said.
West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey said she begins with the state guidelines regarding potential disqualifications. Following a review the license is granted or not granted. "I really stick to being consistent with people," she said.
Chief Toomey said that for the most part she grants a license for all lawful purposes and rarely adds restrictions. "There are some towns in the Commonwealth," she said, "where no one gets a class-A concealed. That's not what we do here." She said she encourages applicants who are turned down for a license to go to court, noting that it is a civil hearing.
Sergeant Kenneth Johnson is responsible for processing firearms licenses in Edgartown prior to approval by Chief Paul Condlin. He said that the chief does not add restrictions and that most license disapprovals occur because an applicant falls under one of the statutory exemptions or an applicant fails to include information that turns up during a background check.
Some applicants are surprised to learn that a misdemeanor conviction that is punishable by a term of more than two years in jail, or a drug conviction no matter how long ago it occurred, carries a lifetime disqualification.
Tisbury Police Chief John Cashin said if there is no indication in the mandatory state review that an applicant is not eligible he grants a license. "Generally speaking," said Chief Cashin, "unless one of my officers can tell me something about the person, or there is some other indication, the license is going to be okay for all lawful purposes."
Mr. Cashin said that while he is not "a big gun guy," the second amendment trumps his view. "What I agree with is not as important as what the law is," he said. "And I think that has been shown a number of times."
Chief Cashin said the state provides few guidelines other than the statutory exemptions, such as specific criminal violations. He said local police chiefs have a great deal of discretion.
Oak Bluffs provides the most stringent requirements for issuing class A firearms permits. A person must be employed in the security industry, for example as a guard or private detective. An applicant must be a business owner or employee and provide proof that he or she regularly handles large sums of cash or valuable merchandise. Or the applicant must be a member of a gun club who wants to target shoot.
In each case the license is conditional to the specific circumstances under which the license is granted. For example, a security guard is restricted to using his or her license only while working or traveling to and from work.
The requirements have been in place for ten years, said Chief Blake. It is a policy that provides clear guidelines and leaves no questions about who may or may not qualify, he said.
Chief Blake said he is willing to listen to a person make a case for why he or she needs an unrestricted license, but it is his view that there is seldom a good reason.
Chief Blake said that the computerization of the system has made the licensing process much easier. Assuming someone meets the criteria there is no problem in granting an FID.
The same is true for someone applying for a class A to hunt or target practice, Chief Blake said. Where he draws a distinction is in the need for someone to carry a concealed gun.
"I think I'm right in the middle of chiefs in Massachusetts," Chief Blake said. "Some will not give it to anybody and some will give it to everybody. As the person who hands out the actual license I want to know why someone feels the need to carry a concealed handgun around town."
A court hearing provides another layer of review. "That is the venue. That is our due process and it is certainly everyone's right," said Chief Blake. "I certainly don't take umbrage to anyone who decides to do that."
The hearing is not adversarial, according to Chief Blake, and each side gets a say. "If someone thinks they did not get their point across to me, then they can certainly get their point across at a hearing to a judge," he said
Chief Blake said that most people, once they understand what the restrictions mean in practical terms, are fine knowing that they can still hunt, target practice, buy guns or protect themselves at home.
People who want to carry a concealed gun need to seriously weigh the risks that go along with carrying a concealed handgun, said Chief Blake, who tries to avoid philosophical debates over the right to carry. "People can have a gun in their house. It's not about the second amendment; it is about meeting the criteria," he said.
Chief Blake added, "It is tricky. That and parking tickets are what people seem to get most heated about."
Gun laws provide a target for conflicting views
Contractor Richard Carlson is an experienced gun owner, an expert shot, and a resident of Oak Bluffs. Last year when it came time to renew his class A license to carry (LTC), Mr. Carlson, who holds a license to carry a pistol in New Hampshire, requested it be issued "for all lawful purposes."
The Massachusetts class A license includes a category for restrictions. Depending on the policy set by the issuing police chief the restriction may read "none" or may list one of several categories of restrictions.
Oak Bluffs police chief Eric Blake renewed Mr. Carlson's license but maintained an existing restriction limiting him to carrying a firearm for the purpose of hunting and target shooting only. Mr. Carlson hired a lawyer and filed an appeal in Edgartown District Court claiming the chief's decision was arbitrary and capricious.
In his court filing Mr. Carlson said he wanted to be able to carry a pistol for personal protection when he traveled. On February 4, Justice Lance J. Garth found in favor of Oak Bluffs.
In part, Justice Garth wrote that Mr. Carlson had failed to prove that the decision of the police chief was biased or unreasonable or that it was based on a lack of common sense or the incorrect application of the law.
In a telephone conversation Mr. Carlson said his principle complaint and frustration is that the law provides individual chiefs with wide discretion. He said once an applicant meets the threshold to qualify for a class A LTC, "he is one of the good guys," and there is no reason to add restrictions.
"It is the protection clause I am after," Mr. Carlson said. "I carry a pistol when I travel alone. I carry for protection of myself. I am not trying to protect any money; I am not trying to protect my car. It is just in case something strange happens and I might need assistance."
He added, "Of course, 40 years ago when I was 26 years old I would fight them off, that wouldn't be a problem, but at 66 it is not something I think I can handle."
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