Even after the Supreme Court’s decision, Massachusetts gun laws may be safe — for now

By John Rosenthal and David Hogg

The Supreme Court Decision issued today strikes down the New York law that required “proper cause” to carry a loaded concealed firearm in public. This is a devastating ruling for New York and gun violence prevention as a whole. Data, research, and common sense prove that strong gun laws save lives. States with strong gun laws have lower gun death rates, and opening the door for more people to carry firearms in high-density urban areas will result in more lost lives.


That said, we believe the court has left the Massachusetts firearm licensing process intact.


Massachusetts has had a strong firearm licensing scheme in place since the nineties. Under our licensing scheme, individuals must receive training before applying to their police chief for a license to carry a firearm outside the home.  The local police chief then does a comprehensive background check on the individual and only denies the applicant when the individual is shown to lack “suitability” for carrying a concealed firearm in public.[1]


Massachusetts chiefs have limited discretion and take their firearm licensing decision responsibility very seriously. Only three percent of concealed carry applicants in Massachusetts are denied a license.[2] From the conversations we have had with Police Chiefs in the Commonwealth, we know that in situations where applicants are denied a license there are known risk factors that concern the chief. For example, one case made national news when a police chief denied a license because the police had been called to the individual’s home multiple times for domestic violence. The applicant later stole a firearm from a friend and killed his 6-year-old son.


We believe the Massachusetts law is fundamentally different than the struck down New York law. While both laws give police some discretion in issuing firearm licenses, the discretion in the New York law was based on the applicant’s stated reason for carrying a firearm outside the home. Meanwhile the licensing discretion in the Massachusetts law is based on the applicant’s suitability to carry a firearm.


We firmly believe that individuals should not be leaving the house armed to the hilt and ready to engage in gun battle on our streets. That said, Massachusetts gun licensing laws are focused on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people with a known history of violence, not dictating their purpose for owning a firearm. Similar to the way we regulate dangerous drivers without considering their purpose for driving. In Massachusetts, we regulate guns like cars and have mandatory background checks, safety training, and renewable licensing. These laws have withstood challenges multiple times and have helped urban Massachusetts become the national leader for gun violence prevention, without banning guns other than military assault weapons and cheap guns without safety features.


We do not believe that the New York decision changes anything for our effective and proven gun safety laws and regulations. Others on the Court including Justices Kavanaugh and Justice Alito seem to agree. Justice Alito, writing a concurrence for the Court, points out the narrow nature of the opinion. He says “Our holding decides nothing about who may lawfully possess a firearm or the requirements that must be met to buy a gun.” The Massachusetts suitability standard is essentially an “objective standard” requirement that must be met to buy a gun.


Justice Alito goes on to say “Nor does it decide anything about the kinds of weapons that people may possess. Nor have we disturbed anything that we said in Heller or McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742 (2010), about restrictions that may be imposed on the possession or carrying of guns.” The Court’s opinion clearly does not strike down other cornerstones of our laws – our bans on dangerous weapons like assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks and our domestic violence prohibitions. In fact, even though the case rules that states may not use discretion based on an individual’s purpose for carrying the firearm in issuing licenses, they have explicitly reserved the right of states to create and maintain sensitive places where firearms cannot be carried.


But will they end there?


In 2020, the Court ruled that a challenge by these same plaintiffs to another New York law was moot. Two years later, the Court’s ideology has shifted even further to the right and we have received this harmful, yet narrow, decision.


For now, we are still protected by the strong gun laws we have fought so hard for, but we will not stop fighting to improve and strengthen our laws. We must continue to build on the successful framework of laws that Massachusetts’ leadership has championed on a bipartisan basis and replicate these laws around the Country while we prepare for the next gun lobby challenge.



[1] https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXX/Chapter140/Section129B

[2] https://news.northeastern.edu/2017/10/31/northeastern-report-finds-stricter-gun-laws-dont-prevent-law-abiding-citizens-from-getting-guns/

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