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‘We’re all on high alert’: Supreme Court decision means Mass. police chiefs have less of a say in who shouldn’t get a gun

Massachusetts has advised police chiefs they should no longer deny, or impose restrictions on, a license to carry because an applicant lacks a “good reason to carry a firearm.”Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

In the first fallout from a Supreme Court ruling on gun permits, the top law enforcement officials in Massachusetts are advising police chiefs to abandon a plank of the state’s gun laws that allows them to deny or put limits on a license if a person fails to cite a “good reason” for carrying a weapon.

The impact of the guidance — issued jointly Friday by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and the Baker administration — could vary widely among towns and larger cities, including in Boston, which has long carried a reputation among attorneys and advocates for using that provision to put restrictions on approved licenses.

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But gun rights advocates pushed back against the new guidance Tuesday, arguing the state’s three-page advisory wrongly interpreted the June Supreme Court ruling and should go further to scale back enforcement of the state’s laws.

State officials released the guidance roughly one week after the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a New York law that requires applicants to prove a “special need” to get a license to carry a firearm in public. Legal experts expected the ruling, known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, to quickly affect Massachusetts, one of five states besides New York that have laws the court considered “analogues” to the standard struck down last month.

The state’s memo to local police chiefs advised them they should no longer deny, or impose restrictions on, a license to carry because an applicant lacks a “good reason to carry a firearm.” The New York state law at issue required applicants to show “proper cause,” or a special need, to carry a gun outside their home that goes beyond a generalized social danger or fear.

“Going forward, if an applicant is not a prohibited person and is not unsuitable, the applicant must be issued an unrestricted license to carry,” the new Massachusetts guidance reads.

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Massachusetts is not alone in pivoting in light of the court decision. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan on Tuesday directed the State Police there to “immediately suspend” enforcement of its “good and substantial reason” standard, saying that continuing to do so “would be unconstitutional.”

In New Jersey, lawmakers on Tuesday passed a legislative package tightening its laws, following a directive its attorney general issued a day after the Supreme Court ruling that said applicants no longer need to submit “written certification of justifiable need to carry a handgun.”

New York lawmakers also passed a package of new firearm measures last week, including requiring that someone show “good moral character” when applying for a license.

Massachusetts lawmakers, too, are weighing a legislative response ahead of the close of formal sessions on July 31, though in what shape or form is unclear.

“At the moment, I’m still confident that our laws will hold up and meet the intentions of the Legislature’s laws that have been passed over the last decade,” said Representative Marjorie C. Decker, a Cambridge Democrat. “Is it reasonable to worry that the Supreme Court has made it clear that things that we have held up as important bedrocks and values of Massachusetts law could be under attack? I think we’re all on high alert.”

Healey’s office and the Baker administration advised chiefs to continue enforcing other tenets of the state’s law, specifically its so-called suitability provision. That gives chiefs wide discretion to consider other factors beyond someone’s criminal record or reason for pursuing a license, such as if police have been called to their home or if they had been the subject of domestic violence incidents that didn’t result in arrests or charges.

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The provision, the guidance says, is “unaffected by Bruen.”

Healey, who is also running for governor, said in a statement that she disagrees with the Bruen decision. “Nevertheless, the court made clear that states may continue to require licenses to carry firearms in public. My office is committed to vigorously defending and enforcing our gun licensing laws here in Massachusetts.”

But in a concurring opinion on Bruen, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote 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.

In those states, Kavanaugh wrote, concealed-carry permits are issued “without granting licensing officials discretion to deny licenses based on a perceived lack of need or suitability.”

The Gun Owners’ Action League sent a letter to Baker and Healey on Tuesday requesting the guidance be rewritten, arguing the suitability standard, too, should be viewed as unconstitutional. “Doing away with this type of discriminatory prejudice is absolutely at the core of the Court’s decision,” according to the letter.

“Government officials tell me, ‘Well, this really didn’t change much in Mass. law.’ That’s wrong,” said Jim Wallace, the group’s executive director. He said the new guidance left key questions unanswered, including what happens to issued licenses that were restricted based on the “good reason” standard.

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“There’s a lot more to this,” he said.

Police and others said how often officials leaned on the “good reason” provision to limit licenses depended on the community.

Lowell police, for example, advise applicants that an “unrestricted LTC will only be granted in limited circumstances,” according to their website. Boston officials tell prospective applicants the city has the power to restrict a license to just hunting or recreational shooting, limiting owners to carrying the gun to and from the range, and that anyone seeking an unrestricted license “must show” a good reason for seeking one.

Efforts to reach Lowell’s interim superintendent were not successful Tuesday. A Boston police spokesman said Superintendent in Chief Gregory Long was not available and that he did not immediately have data on the numbers of restricted licenses.

Upton Police Chief Michael J. Bradley Jr., said most chiefs he’s spoken with “moved away” from enforcing those provisions years ago.

“If we did a poll, you would find out that the majority of them do not” enforce it, said Bradley, who is president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “I think [the change] has minimal impact, really.”

Mark Leahy, executive director of the association and a former chief in Northborough, said he was never “terribly interested” in what someone’s reason was for pursuing a license and did not put restrictions on licenses when he issued them.

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“I didn’t care to editorialize on that. I am aware of the fact that there were other chiefs who did,” Leahy said. “If anything, this [guidance] might be a step toward increased consistency from community to community.”

Joseph B. Simons, a Boston attorney who handles firearm license cases, said he has a handful of appeals pending with Boston police for clients who had their licenses restricted, though he has yet to receive an official response.

“I think there will be a blanket undoing of the restrictions,” he said. And while the state’s guidance said chiefs’ ability to determine someone’s suitability remains intact, he said he expects that too will be challenged in court.

“That,” Simons said, “could be ripe for appeal.”


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