Depending on who you ask, the goal of gun control laws is either to minimize the number of unnecessary gun deaths by keeping firearms out of the hands of the wrong people, or the first step towards state control over every aspect of our personal lives. Based on the above description, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is either the poster child for sensible gun policy, or a burgeoning autocracy.
In 2017, the State of Massachusetts ranked second lowest in per capita firearms deaths, based on data from the Center for Disease Control. Despite having a higher overall rate of violent crime than its more rural neighbors to the north, per capita gun deaths in Massachusetts were a third of those in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
The main reason: Massachusetts makes it really, really hard to get a gun. So hard, there are lawyers who dedicate their entire practice to helping people rectify issues encountered during the gun licensing process.
To help figure out what kinds of people get lost in the thicket of Massachusetts' gun licensing process, I spoke with attorney Jason Guida, former Director of the Massachusetts Firearms Records Bureau and currently an attorney helping people denied their license to carry or charged with a firearms violation in the commonwealth (interview below).
How to get a gun in Massachusetts
Let's say you get really mad at someone and decide you want to shoot them. Maybe someone cuts you off in traffic, a neighbor keeps stealing your paper, a roommate eats the last of your Lucky Charms - I don't know what sets you off, but you're pissed and hungry for some street justice.
The first step in your path to vengeance is to complete a firearms safety training course at a school sanctioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This course usually lasts one day, and covers basic firearms use, safety, and the laws governing the lawful use of guns in the state.
Assuming you ignore the "don't shoot your roommate over the Lucky Charms" segment of the class, you're given a certificate that entitles you to fill out an application for a license to carry, or LTC. In the application you provide information related to your criminal and mental health history, as well as basic personal information.
Issues such as outstanding arrest warrants, restraining orders, or commitment to a mental institution show up upon processing your application will typically result in an immediate denial.
So - you've completed your gun safety training course and your application hasn't been denied. Now you can get your gun, right? WRONG!
Assuming no glaring issues show up on your application, you then go to your town or city's police department to schedule an interview with the local firearms licensing officer. Massachusetts gives broad discretion to local chiefs of police when determining someone's suitability to own a gun, and the purpose of the interview is to determine whether granting you an LTC would pose a threat to the community.
This part is one that's criticized by gun advocates, as it goes beyond your record and into a more subjective view of your conduct. If you have a clean record but are routinely getting escorted out of your local American Legion for getting too rowdy during Trivia Night, the police chief might justifiably decide giving you a gun might make things worse. On the same token, if a jilted ex decides to routinely call in phony complaints against you, you may be denied as well.
Assuming the police don't see any issues with you owning a gun, they have up to 40 days to process your application, after which you're finally given your license to carry.
Now can I get my gun?
Assuming there are no discrepancies between the state and federal databases when the gun shop runs a background check, then yes. Although by then you've probably forgotten why you wanted to shoot that person in the first place, and are now about $500 in the hole.
Not a bad way to prevent unnecessary shootings, right?
So - what's the problem?
Full disclosure - your author has never owner a gun and has no plans to, so I always appreciated the fact Massachusetts kept guns out of the hands of the wrong people. I still believe that to be the case.
The problem occurs when otherwise law abiding people get caught up in the gears due to minor infractions or mistakes from the past. If you had a drug problem but have been in recovery for 10 years, you can get denied. If you were raised in a broken home, had criminal infractions from your youth, but have since grown up to be a contributing member of society, you can be denied.
For these people, it's less about the gun and more about the state telling them their past means they'll never be a fully free and equal member of society. In the last episode on the data behind gun ownership, we discussed how gun owners view gun ownership as essential to their liberty and, by that, their identity as an American. Keeping this in mind, it's easy to see how Massachusetts' process could make some people feel shut out.
I'm personally of the opinion that one person unjustly denied a license to carry is better than one person shot dead by someone who shouldn't possess a firearm. People in Massachusetts aren't dying because they had to wait awhile to carry a gun.
This being said, the importance of owning a gun to some Americans combined with a right to carry enshrined in the Constitution makes this a thornier subject. If we're going to have an honest debate and reach any practical solution, non-gun people such as myself have to come to the table with a respect for the importance gun ownership plays in some people's lives.
We'll be exploring this next week with our guest Mike the Gun Guy. Until then, you can listen to my interview with Jason below, on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever else your bad self listens to podcasts.