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‘We’re talking days.’ Supreme Court decision will put Mass. gun laws at risk, experts say

A view of the Massachusetts State House. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe StaffSuzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The Supreme Court decision Thursday striking down a New York firearm law left Massachusetts lawmakers searching for a fix that could help maintain the state’s strict gun safety regime.

In the 6-3 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it’s unconstitutional for New York to require someone to prove a “special need” before getting a license to carry a firearm in public. Legal experts expect the ruling to quickly affect Massachusetts, one of five states besides New York that have laws that the court considers “analogues” to the standard struck down by Thursday’s ruling.

“It will not take long at all” until the gun licensing law is challenged here, said Kent Greenfield, a Boston College law professor. “The next person denied a permit under the Massachusetts law can go immediately into federal court and get an injunction requiring their permit be issued based on this ruling. We’re not talking months, we’re talking days.”

Currently, Massachusetts law gives local police chiefs, who serve as the state’s licensing authority, the discretion to determine whether someone is suitable to have a license. Policymakers say that provision is a key part of the gun safety system in Massachusetts, which had the second-lowest firearm mortality rate in the country in 2020, trailing only Hawaii.

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But the police chief provision of state gun law may be under threat in its current form. The Supreme Court decision, known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, prompted wide consternation Thursday, even as Massachusetts officials are holding up their own laws as a model for other states to follow in the wake of a spate of deadly mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y.; Uvalde, Texas; and elsewhere.

“We need to take urgent action,” said state Senator Jamie Eldridge, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s judiciary committee. “We know that discretionary language is gone, that essentially the police chief is not going to be able to make a discretionary decision. It’s a significant loss. . . . But it is possible for us to craft a bill that very specifically describes the situations or history where a person shall not get a concealed weapon.”

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That could include, the Acton Democrat said, explicitly barring those with certain records of violence or domestic violence from having a license to carry, or increasing the training requirements to get one.

What could ultimately emerge is not yet clear. Lawmakers also face a tight deadline for action: Their formal sessions are scheduled to end for the year on July 31, meaning any package would have to emerge amid a bottleneck of other major bills in coming weeks.

“One of the reasons that we have the lowest death rate by handguns is because of the work that we did to create a process that works,” said House Speaker Ronald Mariano. “Now to have a blatantly political decision . . . throw that policy out the window and create difficulty for us is really something that is very, very disappointing.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion that Massachusetts, New York, and four other states “potentially affected” by Thursday’s decision may continue to require licenses for carrying handguns, as long as they “employ objective licensing requirements” like those in 43 other states.

Under these so-called shall issue laws, an applicant can get a gun license as long as they meet certain requirements “without granting licensing officials discretion to deny licenses based on a perceived lack of need or suitability,” Kavanaugh wrote.

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“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas wrote for the court. “That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him.

“And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense,” he wrote.

Elected officials in Massachusetts were quick to note that the decision would not spur any automatic changes in the law here.

Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said the ruling has “no immediate effect on the Commonwealth’s gun laws, which all remain in place.”

“We’re not going to see people walking around in churches and schools with guns on their side,” said state Representative Michael S. Day, House chairman of the judiciary committee. “Our scheme works. We believe it’s constitutional and firmly within the strictures of the Second Amendment. We’re going to look at what, if any, impact this has on the underlying regulatory scheme we have.”

Gun rights advocates who cheered the decision also said they, too, hope for quick legislative action.

“I’d love to see the Legislature recognize our civil rights and fix the laws that are in clear violation of this,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League. “We don’t want bad people getting guns. It’s not like anybody — and I’ve heard it today, that this means anybody can get a gun. It’s a flat-out lie.”

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Still, legal observers warn, it’s simply a matter of time until the ruling could weaken the reach of Massachusetts law.

Jason A. Guida, an attorney and former director of the Massachusetts Firearms Records Bureau, said lawmakers will have to quickly reconsider what power local chiefs have, including what elements of a past offense could prompt a license to be denied.

“Otherwise,” he said, “it’s going to be local police departments being dragged into court. It’s going to be case by case — and there’s a very big possibility that chiefs’ discretion may be completely eliminated.”

In a statement, Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running for governor, called the Supreme Court opinion “reckless and anti-democratic,” adding it “poses a grave danger to Americans as they go about their daily lives in public spaces like supermarkets, hospitals, and playgrounds.”

“I stand by our common-sense gun laws and will continue to vigorously defend and enforce them,” she said.

The New York state law at issue requires people to apply for a permit to carry a concealed gun, and to show “proper cause,” or a special need to carry a gun outside their home that goes beyond a generalized social danger or fear.

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Massachusetts has a similar standard. Under state law, local police chiefs may issue a license to carry — which allows the purchase and carrying in public of a handgun — to someone if that person shows a “good reason” to have one, including if they “fear injury to the applicant or the applicant’s property.”

The application of the Massachusetts law can also vary widely, including in the restrictions local officials can place on licenses.

In Boston, for example, city officials tell prospective applicants they could restrict a license to just hunting or recreational shooting, limiting a person to carrying the gun to and from the range. Or, if a person says they are applying for a license to carry because they want a gun for work — they may carry a lot of money on them and want protection, for example — the city could restrict the license to “business activities” only.

The Supreme Court recognized the Second Amendment as an individual right in 2008′s District of Columbia v. Heller, but the ruling was limited, protecting the right to keep a gun “in defense of hearth and home.”

Activists in Massachusetts hope Thursday’s ruling prompts not just a legislative reaction, but a consideration to expand other parts of the state’s gun laws. Ilyse Levine-Kanji, an activist with Moms Demand Action, said among the proposals the group has pushed is one banning firearms at polling stations.

“Hopefully,” she said, “the Bruen decision will be a wake-up call.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.