Mass. chiefs approve most gun permits

Only 1.8% of applicants denied, suggesting discretion not abused

ONLY A TINY fraction of Massachusetts residents who apply for firearms licenses or identification cards are turned down, suggesting the state’s reputation for restricting gun use may be overstated.

Just 1.8 percent of those who applied for Firearms Identification Cards (FID) and licenses to carry concealed weapons between 2010 and 2015 were rejected, according to state data. Monson in western Massachusetts is the strictest community in issuing licenses. Between 2010 and 2015, the town issued 1,502 FID cards and licenses to carry. It denied 121, a rate of more than 7.5 percent.  On the other end of the scale, Duxbury issued nearly 1,100 permits while rejecting just two, none since 2013.chart.2

The state’s low rejection rate runs contrary to the narrative of gun rights advocates, who allege that police chiefs in Massachusetts regularly abuse their discretion in denying licenses.

Under state law, police chiefs in cities and towns issue licenses within parameters that include statutory reasons for denial, including a felony conviction, a domestic violence restraining order, and a history of drug abuse. Applicants must also be US citizens. The chiefs also have broad discretion to refuse licenses. For example, chiefs can reject applicants if they deem them a risk to public safety, if their reason for needing a gun is not acceptable, or if they are homeless.

In Massachusetts, FID cards and Class A licenses for large capacity guns, which also allow the holder to carry a concealed weapon, are good for six years. The state used to issue Class B licenses to carry for non-large capacity guns such as handguns, shotguns, and single-shot rifles, but a 2014 law eliminated that category. The data requested by CommonWealth from the state Firearms Records Bureau covers all six-year licenses issued by communities between 2010 and 2015.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League in Northborough, says the state’s numbers are misleading. He says police chiefs regularly abuse their discretion and make it more difficult for people to obtain licenses they should be allowed to have. Wallace says some chiefs require applicants to write an essay on the state’s gun laws and state law sets the fee at $100 for a permit, much higher than most other states.

The fact that so many residents are awarded licenses is testament to the perseverance of the applicants not the ease of the permitting process, Wallace says. “All it shows is that people are very determined to get past any hurdles they have to get past in order to exercise their constitutional right,” he says.

Wallace also claims the state’s denial rate is low because the information on the denial is never sent to the state. “It’s one of the things we continue to face. A lot of people get denied before the information even gets to EOPSS [Executive Office of Public Safety and Security],” says Wallace. “What we see is the demand for training has been very high for years now. That’s where we see the anecdotal evidence. We really don’t have a good idea of denials because some of it happens before they’re in the system.”

Officials dismiss Wallace’s claim. While there may be isolated incidents of chiefs telling applicants they will likely be denied, the officials say the numbers are so small they probably wouldn’t move the needle.

“People do make mistakes in life. Maybe they have a disqualifier in the past and I’ll give them time to consider whether they want to appeal,” says Westfield Police Chief John Camerota. “Eventually, it gets entered into the system.”

Camerota has among the lowest rates of denials in the state, turning down about one-half of 1 percent of the nearly 4,700 license applications in the past six years. Camerota says he’s “probably more liberal” in issuing licenses than many of his colleagues around the state because he prefers not to use his discretion outside of the statutory restrictions for disqualifying someone. It’s not a part of the job he relishes.

“I’d actually like the state to handle all the licenses,” he says, though acknowledging he’s in the minority among his peers. “Sometimes it’s a gut feeling [to deny a license], sometimes it’s based on fact. I don’t have the wisdom of Solomon. At times, it’s frustrating.”

Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, recently co-authored a study of the prevalence of guns in the United States. The report, considered one of the most comprehensive studies yet done on gun ownership, found 22.6 percent of households in Massachusetts have a gun, a number he said was “quite low” compared to the rest of the country. Galea said between the results of his study and the data obtained by CommonWealth, it is a “manufactured narrative” that law-abiding citizens are being denied a permit for a gun even if they qualify.chart.1

“Most people are not denied,” says Galea. “It’s just not borne out by the data. There’s been a well-orchestrated, well-financed effort creating a particular narrative around guns that there is a general sense of being denied guns. Frankly, gun checks don’t work so far. I think our numbers are probably accurate.”

John Rosenthal, a gun owner who is the founder of Stop Handgun Violence, says the state’s laws are not intended to prevent qualified people from owning guns but rather to stop guns from falling into the hands of the wrong people. He points out that since Massachusetts passed its groundbreaking gun control law in 1994 and updated it twice since, gun-related deaths have dropped by 60 percent in the state.

“GOAL [Gun Owners Action League] and the NRA continually misrepresent the truth and sell fear in order to sell more guns,” says Rosenthal. “Very few people are denied in Massachusetts and the system is working. Massachusetts has common sense gun laws that make it harder for criminals, terrorists, and dangerously mentally ill people to legally buy guns.”

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Rosenthal says the discretion granted to police chiefs under Massachusetts law can prevent tragedies. He says Omar Mateen bought a semi-automatic rifle and handgun just days before slaughtering 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, even though he had been interviewed and followed by the FBI. Under Florida law, the licensing authorities can only reject applicants for gun permits based on strict exemptions. The fact that a person is on the terrorist watchlist or a federal no-fly list would not prevent him or her from obtaining a permit in Florida. In Massachusetts, by contrast, police chiefs can subjectively take more factors into account when granting a license.

“Thankfully, police chiefs in Massachusetts have discretion in licensing,” says Rosenthal. “Omar Mateen would have a much more difficult time buying handguns. There’s no question in my mind he would have been denied in Massachusetts.”