The Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday 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 strong firearm licensing laws in place since the 1990s. Individuals must receive training before applying to their local police chief for a license to carry a firearm outside the home. The police chief then does a comprehensive background check on the individual and denies an applicant only if the individual is shown to lack “suitability” for carrying a concealed firearm in public.
Massachusetts police chiefs have limited discretion and take their firearm licensing decision responsibility seriously. Only 3 percent of “concealed carry” applicants in Massachusetts are denied a license. From the conversations we have had with police chiefs across 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 man’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 from the New York law the Supreme Court struck down. 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.
Of course, people should not be leaving their homes armed to the hilt and ready to engage in gun battle. 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. This is similar to the way the state regulates dangerous drivers without considering their purpose for driving. Massachusetts has 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 don’t believe that the New York decision changes anything for our effective and proven gun safety laws and regulations. Others on the court, including Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito, seem to agree. Alito, writing a concurrence for the court, points out the narrow nature of the opinion: “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.
Alito went 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 Massachusetts’ 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 the Supreme Court 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, Massachusetts is still protected by the strong gun laws we have fought so hard for, but we will not stop fighting to improve and strengthen these 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 as we prepare for the next gun lobby challenge.