By James Kwon, Abigail Noyes, Madison Rogers, and Tay Thai
When it comes to gun laws, Massachusetts is often viewed as the liberal standard. Our 101 laws are debatably the strictest policies in the country, praised by gun control advocates and reviled by gun-owner advocacy groups. The state’s ban on assault weapons and bump stocks are some of the most cited examples of gun reform to combat mass shootings. In 2014, the state passed a sweeping gun reform bill, focused on increasing background checks and attention to mental health, tightening security in schools, and making punishment for gun crimes harsher. A lot of gun legislation in Massachusetts has focused on the licensing process. Everywhere in the country, people have to fill out some kind of paperwork to legally own a gun, but the licensing process in Massachusetts is longer, thorougher, and more selective than any other.
Brian Yule, a Massachusetts resident, applied for a gun in 2016 in Plymouth. He described the process as “long and drawn out compared to other states.”
Yule said the whole licensing process took about six months after successfully completing a safety course and an interview with local law enforcement. A 2014 study from the department of criminal justice says on average, the licensing process in Plymouth is about 116 days, almost 4 months. This is among the highest waiting periods of any municipality in Massachusetts.
In many states with less regulation on firearms, such as Alabama, there’s no virtually wait time – the licensing application process is often simply filling out a form while purchasing a gun from a dealer. There is substantial evidence to back up Massachusetts’ method; a CDC report states that Massachusetts has one of the lowest firearm death rates in the nation at 3.4 gun deaths per 100,00 people. Alabama’s rate is 21.5.
In June, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration urged local police chiefs to rescind 340 licenses from individuals who had been previously cleared. The state Firearms License Review Board reviews firearm applicants with misdemeanor charges. Law enforcement officials claim this organization cleared hundreds of applicants that would not be approved by federal law.
Seven judges, however, ordered these licenses be reinstated, arguing Baker’s administration overstepped their bounds.
The discrepancy comes from a federal law which says that any applicant convicted of a misdemeanor or of a crime for which the sentence is two years or less is not exempt from owning a firearm. Some misdemeanors in Massachusetts have two and a half year sentences.
Massachusetts laws are, of course, stricter than the national minimum. Yet, this revelation identifies some discrepancies as the laws transfer from the federal level to the state level, and even to individual municipalities. No town’s firearm laws can override or be less stringent than those of the state. Yet these conditions are not always black and white.
The state requires applicants to bring several documents, including a certificate of completion from a basic firearms safety course. Residents submit applications to local police districts, who run state, federal, and fingerprint background checks, and communicate with the Department of Mental Health. The process is notoriously drawn out, with the large majority of districts failing to meet the state’s 40-day limit for application processing. Only 38 of the 347 local licensing authorities’ average wait time were within the legal limit, with a statewide average of 65 days.
According to a report by the Office of the State Auditor, the reason many municipalities take a long time to process licenses is largely due to understaffing and a lack of collaboration with the statewide Department of Criminal Justice Information Services.
Beyond this overall trend, wait times fluctuates widely from town to town. This may be a result of local differences in licensing procedures. Individual towns, according to state law, have some leeway in gun licensing, including application requirements and wait times.
Getting a firearm license in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a lot like applying to a job. You need references – two letters of recommendation not from family members speaking to your good character and intentions. You need a cover letter – a letter addressed to Deputy DeFrancesco detailing why you’re seeking the license. The ID and proof-of-residence requirements are laid out and specific, which you’d deliver along with the statewide standard $100 fee and basic firearms safety course certificate.
Instead of making the process more rigorous, other towns seek to streamline it. In Duxbury, the town’s website highlights that returning applicants don’t need a safety course certificate, a policy that applies statewide, but one that most towns leave off their website.
Most city and town police departments list requirements for firearms license applications on their websites, and these checklists differ a lot. Newton, like Cambridge, requires two letters of reference. Revere and Nantucket ask for three. Many cities and towns, especially in Western Massachusetts, which has a much higher gun application rate, just list the statewide requirements. Some towns like Deerfield and Peru just link to the Massachusetts application website.
A 2016 WBZ story compiled data highlighting the number of active firearms licenses in each Massachusetts municipality. The data record all licenses that were active as of 2016. Our efforts to obtain an update to the information from the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services were not fulfilled.
The most licenses, unsurprisingly, were found in cities with the highest populations.
When accounting for population, though, the highest percent of licenses per population were by and large found in Western Massachusetts, and in towns close to the state’s borders. These geographic trends are not all-encompassing, but paint a distinct picture of gun culture in Massachusetts.
Gun licensing rates highest in western Mass., border towns
High concentration of gun licenses per population are located more frequently in western Massachusetts. More urban areas, also the most populated, have a lower concentration of licenses within their population. Data from Massachusetts Department of Public Safety. No color indicates no data available. ABIGAIL NOYES via CARTO
The same investigative piece from WBZ explored license denials from 2006 to 2016 in these municipalities. When looking at the rate of denials in this period against active licenses as of 2016, we see a different picture of these municipalities. Cities that tend to have a higher denial rate appear to be scattered geographically throughout the state.
It’s important to note that for this data, denial rate does not specifically identify the percent of all applicants who are denied firearms licenses. The denials occurred over a 10-year span, and the active licenses presumably were issued or renewed within six years of collection, according to state policy. This denial rate, therefore, is likely higher than the city’s overall percentage of rejected applications.
The town with the highest denial rate over this period is Revere. Among the lowest are Brewster, Duxbury and Harvard.
Denial rates range widely throughout the state
Denial rates don’t follow a clear geographic pattern, unlike the rate of licensing per population. The large range of denial rates appears to indicate different methodologies per town. Data from Massachusetts Department of Public Safety. No color indicates no data available. ABIGAIL NOYES via CARTO
Revere is one of the towns in which applying for a gun license mirrors the job application process. The Revere Police Department notes on its website that applicants need three letters of recommendation. These references cannot be family members, and must “be of good moral character and must have known you for at least five years.”
Revere’s average waiting period in 2014 was among the highest of any Massachusetts municipality. Residents wait 139 days on average after submitting their application; in Harvard, the wait is only 49 days.
Jamie Rivera, a resident of Lynn, Massachusetts recently applied for his LTC. Amongst his friends with more “lenient” gun policies, Rivera sees why different towns have different policies and application processes.
“When you apply for a gun in a town that’s closer to a city, that’s a lot different than applying for one when you live near the woods. There are questions to ask like, what are you using the gun for? Are you trained to use a gun?” he says.
Rivera’s process comprised a completion of safety courses, an interview with local police, a fee of $150 and an application. When he talked to local police officials before applying, they told him the process would take anywhere between 3 to 6 months. Rivera was able to obtain his LTC in 3 months.
“With applying for a license in intercity towns like Lynn, there’s more likelihood of gun negligence. Gun policy tries to combat that by making stricter processes,” he says.
With inconsistency from town to town in terms of requirements, wait times, and acceptance rates, some organizations work to further tighten Massachusetts gun policy. Of these organizations, perhaps the one with the greatest level of influence is the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
The organization was created in wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and works to advocate for stronger gun control laws during legislative sessions at Beacon Hill. They serve as a main contender to the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL) and other firearm industry lobbyists who were otherwise uncontended in past years.
Angus McQuilken, the co-founder of the coalition, has praised Massachusetts in their comprehensive list of state gun laws, but knows there is more to be done.
“We have been working closely with police chiefs to improve our laws in this regard. Our experience is that our police chiefs on a local level take their jobs… and the responsibility that they hold in the licensing process very seriously,” said McQuilken. “But it’s important to know that even in the state with the most comprehensive and effective gun laws in the country, the percentage of licenses that are actually denied is very slim.”
McQuilken says organizations like GOAL are harmful to proper gun legislation on all levels, state or otherwise. Despite Massachusetts’ liberal reputation, he sees these kinds of advocacy groups as a force to be reckoned with.
“They have, to my understating, 16,000 members, which is a very small percentage of our states population. But they raise their voices and make a lot of noise whenever legislation is being considered on Beacon Hill,” said McQuilken. “They have a good amount of influence because they advocate very vocally when new laws are being considered.”
In many ways, McQuilken’s fear of GOAL finding its way into gun related decisions and policies is valid. In Newburyport’s license application form, the applicant is pointed to GOAL as a source of information about gun safety procedures, despite the advocacy group having no formal ties to the government.
“I tend to think that we would all be well-served if police chiefs relied on objective information to share with applicants for gun licenses,” said McQuilken. “That doesn’t seem to me to be a proper role for an advocacy organization whose interest is to protect the interests of the firearms industry.”
As Massachusetts continues to set liberal standards for state gun laws, the regulations on a municipal scale can go unnoticed. But the majority of the gun licensing process happens at a local level – at police stations. It’s important to understand the level of power local police chiefs cam have, making daily judgement calls on who can and can not legally have a gun in their hands.
As organizations like GOAL and the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence make their voices heard on Beacon Hill, focusing more heavily on state level policies, municipal governments employ their own set of guidelines while holding arguably the most crucial role in one of the country’s most pressing issues.
Town-by-town wait periods– SOURCE: Massachusetts State Auditor
Licenses per population by town– SOURCE: Massachusetts Department of Public Safety
Geographical data for Massachusetts– SOURCE: MassGIS
Denials per Licenses– SOURCE: Massachusetts Department of Public Safety