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Gun licenses on the rise, as state considers changes in gun laws

The number of residents holding gun licenses in communities west 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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“We had a slight bump because people were nervous about restrictions coming for permits,” said William Bosworth, the police chief in Stow. “It’s kind of a hot topic.”

The number of people in 53 area communities with a Class A license, the most popular in the state, rose by 6 percent last year over 2012’s figure. A Class A license allows the holder to carry a concealed handgun, or rifles or shotguns with a large capacity for ammunition.

More than 35,000 area residents have a “license to carry,” as a Class A permit is known.

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The increase varied widely by community, with 13 registering double-digit growth, led by Bedford and Dunstable at 17 percent, and a few showed a decline in the number of Class A licenses. Other communities with at least 10 percent growth included Ashland, Bellingham, Carlisle, and Stow.

The general 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.

In Stow, police recently held a gun safety class, which people need to take before they can get a license. It was so successful, another is planned, said Detective Mike Scalese.

Twelve residents, including four women, attended the class, which cost $100 and was run by a police officer from another department. At the end of the day, residents could then have their application processed, which saved time, Scalese said, although background checks still needed to be performed. Applications are processed within 40 days, he said.

Boxborough was among the handful of communities where the number of licenses dropped slightly, but Police Chief Warren Ryder shrugged off the dip. “We’re not doing anything differently,” he said. Applications and renewals for licenses keep his staff busy, he said; what was once a job for one sergeant now involves three people.

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 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, as well as 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 repellant.

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 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.

Bill Reed, a longtime gun owner who lives in Ayer, doesn’t like giving police chiefs more authority to block license applicants. He thinks they use flimsy excuses to block people who should be allowed to carry a firearm.

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 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 based in Northborough, 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 an FID card and then got into trouble.

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