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Gun licenses on the rise, as state considers changes in law

The number of residents holding gun licenses in communities south 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.

Police 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.

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“People want to get [a license] while they can,” said Kingston Police Chief Maurice J. Splaine. “There’s nothing more to it than that. . . . It’s not just Kingston; it’s throughout the state.”

The number of people in Globe South communities with a Class A license, the most popular in the state, jumped 5 percent between 2012 and last year. A Class A license allows the holder to carry a concealed handgun, or rifles or shotguns with a large capacity for ammunition. Eight in 10 people with a license have a Class A.

About 47,000 residents in the region’s 48 communities have a “license to carry,” as a Class A is known. Eleven communities saw double-digit growth, led by Pembroke and Kingston, at 15 percent each, followed by Bridgewater, Abington, and Norwood.

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The local increase in licenses is a trend reflected statewide. Between 2012 and last year, the number of people in Massachusetts with Class A licenses rose about 5 percent, from about 271,000 to 284,000. The number has climbed more than 20 percent between 2009 and last year.

Geographic differences stand out: Residents in western and southeastern Massachusetts, with long traditions of hunting, are more likely to have licenses. But obtaining a gun license has increased in popularity in most communities around the state.

Bridgewater Chief Christopher D. Delmonte said he’s not entirely sure what’s driving the hike.

“I can’t give a definitive factor, other than there’s talk of more regulation or restrictions on purchasing or licensing,” he said. But he noted that almost every applicant for a pistol used personal or public safety as the main reason for applying.

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 incidents. Through 2012, reports of violent crime — which includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — had dropped nearly 45 percent, 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 license in Massachusetts have a Class A, but there are several other kinds of gun licenses. 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 nonlarge-capacity rifles and shotguns. And a restricted Firearms Identification card allows the holder to carry a chemical repellant.

The proposed legislative changes at the state level have angered some gun owners, who say Massachusetts gun laws are already strict compared with other states, but are defended by others who feel more can be done to control gun violence.

The panel, which made 44 recommendations, was appointed by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo following the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Proposed changes 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 person from obtaining a Class A license by declaring him or her an “unsuitable person.” The proposed changes would broaden that to include someone applying for a Firearms Identification card.

That change has angered some gun owners, who contend some chiefs under the current law declare people “unsuitable” in an arbitrary way.

For instance, a chief could deny a license to someone who was charged years earlier with domestic violence but not convicted, gun owners noted. However, another chief could grant a license, saying the person was not convicted and the charge was old.

James G. Hicks, chief of police in Natick, a member of the panel that made the recommendations, said the recommendation that chiefs have more discretion in handing out Firearms Identification cards has wide, but not unanimous support among chiefs.

“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 chiefs, but which was pushed by Governor Deval Patrick, would have limited gun purchases to one a month. Many chiefs felt that would have hampered legal gun owners, he said. It was not included in the report, 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 people still can appeal.

The task force “recommended 44 steps that, when taken together, can make a serious dent in reducing gun violence in Massachusetts,” said state Representative David Linsky, Democrat from Natick. “They stayed away from proposals that would be difficult politically to enact, as having questionable value.”

But Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, an 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 laws, 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?” he asked. “They wouldn’t have to follow [standards] because they aren’t law.”

Chiefs now cannot use the “unsuitable person” standard to stop someone from getting a Firearms Identification card. But the panel recommended the suitability standard be applied to Firearms Identification cards, as well.

Wallace criticized that proposed change and said he has repeatedly asked chiefs to show examples of “unsuitable” people who obtained Firearms Identification cards and then got into trouble.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.
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