The number of residents holding gun licenses in Massachusetts communities north of Boston climbed last year, continuing a long-term trend, as the state considers stricter laws that would give police chiefs more power to deny licenses to people.
The chiefs say the surge in licenses is driven by a fear that changes in state and federal laws are coming that will make it more difficult to obtain a license.
Billerica Chief Daniel Rosa said it’s fear of more government regulation, not crime, that’s driving an influx of people to apply for gun licenses. The number of Class A licenses, the most popular in the state, increased about 12 percent in town.
A Class A license allows the holder to carry a concealed handgun, or rifles or shotguns with a large capacity for ammunition.
“There’s been an increase, no doubt about it,” said Rosa. “Anyone who was sort of considering it, or putting it off, has decided now is the time to do it.”
The number of people in Globe North communities with a Class A license jumped 6 percent between 2012 and last year.
More than 57,000 people in the region’s 54 communities have a “license to carry,” as a Class A is known. Nine communities saw double-digit growth, led by Everett, which had a spike of 29 percent, followed by Winthrop and Rowley.
The local increase in licenses is a trend reflected statewide. The number of people in Massachusetts with Class A licenses rose by nearly 5 percent, from about 271,000 in 2012 to 284,000 last year. The latest number represents an increase of more than 20 percent since 2009.
Geographic differences stand out: Residents in the western and southeastern parts of the state, with long traditions of hunting, are more likely to have licenses. But obtaining a gun license has increased in popularity in most communities across Massachusetts.
Rowley Police Chief Robert R. Barker has some theories about why that might be happening, but no definite conclusions.
“It seems like it’s been a lot busier” when it comes to gun license applications, he said. “I really don’t know why. I suppose it’s possible people are looking at stricter gun laws and want to get one while they still have a chance.”
Everett Police Chief Steve A. Mazzie said the jump in his community reflected the reduction in a backlog of applications that had developed because of internal problems, not a change in direction by the department.
“Some people waited an outrageous amount of time,” he said, and the department was criticized by gun groups. Now the process seems to be working well, he said.
“I haven’t had complaints” about slow processing recently, which he had been receiving. “It’s been pretty quiet.”
‘A police chief should be able to say, “I’m not going to give you a gun.” ’Jerry Belair, Of Stop Handgun Violence
The climb in gun ownership comes as violent crime in Massachusetts has fallen almost every year since 1993, when it hit a peak of more than 48,000 reported incidents. Through 2012, reports of violent crime — which includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — had dropped nearly 45 percent from 1993, according to FBI data.
And property crime, which includes burglaries and car thefts, has been cut nearly in half since 1991.
About eight in 10 people with a gun license in Massachusetts have a Class A, but there are several other kinds of permits. Class B, which is uncommon, applies to nonconcealed handguns that carry less ammunition, and large capacity rifles and shotguns. A firearms identification card applies to smaller-capacity rifles and shotguns, and a restricted firearms identification card allows the holder to carry a chemical repellent.
Proposed changes to the state’s gun laws have angered some gun owners, who say Massachusetts laws are already strict compared with other states, but are defended by others who feel more can be done to control gun violence.
A panel to consider changes was appointed by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo following the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December 2012. It developed a list of 44 recommendations, which included giving police chiefs the power to block potentially dangerous people from buying rifles and shotguns, broadening background checks, and strengthening gun safety courses. A bill is now being drafted, according to the speaker’s office.
Under current law, police chiefs have the power to block a Class A license by declaring the applicant an “unsuitable person.” The proposed changes would broaden that to include potentially blocking someone applying for a firearms identification card.
The proposal has angered some gun owners, who contend that police chiefs under the current law can declare people “unsuitable” in an arbitrary way.
For instance, one chief could deny a license to someone who was charged, but not convicted, of domestic violence years earlier, while another chief might grant the license, critics say.
Lisa Peters, the vice president of the Massachusetts Rifle Association in Woburn, said the committee was more focused on tightening the rules against gun owners, and not improving the situation for legal gun owners.
They should work harder at simplifying the law, said Peters, who has had her license since the mid-1990s. “The law is very convoluted and confusing.”
She is not a fan of giving chiefs discretion in handing out licenses.
“You should either meet the requirement or you don’t,” said the Arlington resident, whose husband also has a gun license.
Natick Police Chief James G. Hicks, a member of the state panel that made the recommendations, said the proposal to give local police officials more discretion in handing out firearms identification cards has wide, but not unanimous, support among his colleagues in the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
“With more than 350 members, not everyone is going to agree,” he said. “But the vast majority agree with what was proposed.”
One idea that received much less support among police chiefs, but which was promoted by Governor Deval Patrick, would have limited gun purchases to one per month. Many chiefs felt that would have hampered legal gun owners, Hicks said. It was not included in the report’s recommendations, disappointing some.
Jerry Belair, the legislative director for Stop Handgun Violence, said it makes sense to give local police chiefs discretion in licensing.
Local police officials have some idea whether a resident is an alcoholic, or using drugs, or has committed domestic violence, even if there was never a formal charge, he said.
“A police chief should be able to say, ‘I’m not going to give you a gun,’ ” Belair said.
Some see that as capricious or arbitrary, he said, but applicants still can appeal a chief’s decision.
The task force “recommended 44 steps that, when taken together, can make a serious dent in reducing gun violence in Massachusetts,” said Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat.
“They stayed away from proposals that would be difficult politically to enact, as having questionable value,” he said.
But Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, a Northborough-based affiliate of the National Rifle Association, was critical of expanding chiefs’ authority to use the “unsuitable” standard to deny someone a license.
While most chiefs follow the law, some abuse the standard, he said.
“They are looking for the chiefs to come up with standards, but don’t want to put it into statute or legislation, because the chiefs, according to the report, need flexibility,” said Wallace. “So how does that change anything? They wouldn’t have to follow’’ the standards, he said, “because they aren’t law.”
Wallace is also critical of the panel’s recommendation to allow police chiefs to use the suitability standard to stop someone from getting a firearms identification card.
He said he has repeatedly asked chiefs to show examples of “unsuitable” people who obtained a car and then got into trouble.Matt Carroll can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.