The Boston Police Department says it has moved to lift restrictions on hundreds of existing gun licenses, with potentially thousands more to come in the city and elsewhere, as police departments pivot in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that is quickly reshaping Massachusetts gun law.
The effort to remove limits on existing licenses to carry in Boston, Springfield, and other communities comes after state officials told police they should no longer place restrictions on people who fail to cite a “good reason” for carrying a concealed firearm. Some police say that even if the limits on someone’s license have yet to be formally lifted, they may be unable to enforce the restrictions anyway.
The shift could impact nearly 20,000 people who are licensed to carry in Massachusetts, and in cities and towns where officials have routinely restricted approved gun permits — saying, for example, firearms can only be taken to and from a range — the recent actions mark a dramatic change in how guns are regulated.
Boston police have long said that applicants “must show good reason” for wanting a firearm when applying for a license, using a part of state law that suburban chiefs say they largely didn’t consider when issuing permits.
In 2021 alone, roughly two-thirds of the nearly 2,900 licenses Boston issued — or 1,945 in total — came with restrictions, according to data provided by Boston police.
It was not immediately clear how widespread such moves are in the rest of Massachusetts, where local officials’ implementation of gun licensing standards can vary widely from community to community. It also ultimately concerns a small share of the state’s 477,500 active licenses to carry, 96 percent of which were issued without restrictions, state data show.
Attorney General Maura Healey and the Baker administration told chiefs to abandon the practice of restricting licenses based on the “good reason” standard 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 affect Massachusetts, one of five states besides New York that have laws the court considered “analogues” to the standard struck down last month.
It’s being quickly felt in Massachusetts’ largest city.
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a Boston police spokesman, said department officials have begun “reviewing all restricted licenses,” and as of last week, the state had processed nearly 250 licenses from Boston in which restrictions were removed, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s Firearms Records Bureau. After making the change, Boston, like other communities, notifies the bureau, which processes it and issues an updated license.
Boyle said last week that he did not immediately have data on how many current licenses are restricted within the city. But data indicate that it could be in the thousands. Boston issued roughly 12,000 licenses to carry between 2016 and 2021, according to state data, though the data do not break down how many were issued with restrictions. A license to carry is valid for six years in Massachusetts.
In Springfield, Ryan Walsh, a spokesman for the city’s Police Department, said officials are moving to lift restrictions when a licensee requests it. State officials have processed 53 licenses from Springfield that were changed from restricted to unrestricted since the Supreme Court ruling.
Medford police, too, have begun “manually removing” restrictions from anyone who has a license to carry in the city and plan to notify licensees when they can pick up their new permits, Jack Buckley, the city’s police chief, said in an e-mail. All licenses to carry in Medford “will be updated to reflect Bruen,” he said.
And in Brookline, Sergeant Chris Malinn said he’s received 10 requests to have restrictions removed but said more are likely. He estimated that of the 700 to 800 active licenses in the town, “half or more” have restrictions.
That said, existing limits on licenses to carry have become unenforceable, he said, citing the state guidance.
“In other words, if somebody got a license that has target and hunting restrictions, but they’re somewhere other than that [carrying a concealed gun] — if they’re out to dinner — that’s no longer a violation of the terms of their license,” Malinn said. “It’s de facto unrestricted, even if it doesn’t say it.”
Such changes may ultimately be felt in only a small share of towns or other cities. Some chiefs told the Globe that before the ruling, they had rarely, if ever, applied the “good reason” statute when deciding whether to approve someone’s application nor did they issue restrictions on licenses.
According to 2017 data compiled several years ago by Commonwealth Second Amendment, Inc., a legal advocacy group that works to protect gun rights, the rate of restrictions swung wildly among communities, with Springfield (73 percent), Boston (80 percent), and Watertown (90 percent) restricting the vast majority of new licenses — plus portions of renewed ones — while many towns and cities restricted none.
As of January, state data show that 19,592 licenses to carry statewide were restricted.
That means the vast majority of licensed gun owners are unaffected by them, “but that’s where the equitability issue comes into play,” said Brent Carlton, the president of Commonwealth Second Amendment, which has advised gun owners who want restrictions lifted from their licenses to send their local police a “polite and brief letter” requesting that their licenses be reissued without them.
“Most people aren’t interested in carrying a concealed gun in public,” Carlton said. “But I think for most of the people, and for me when it was the case, it’s an issue of, ‘Why don’t I qualify [for an unrestricted license]? Why am I not good enough?’ It’s an aspect of being singled out.”
Under the state’s advisory, local police chiefs were told they should no longer deny, or impose restrictions on, a license to carry because an applicant lacks a “good reason to carry a firearm.” But the advisory explicitly said they should continue enforcing other tenets of the state’s law, specifically its so-called suitability provision.
That gives chiefs wide discretion to consider other factors in deciding whether to issue a license beyond someone’s criminal record, 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. It is, proponents say, a crucial part of Massachusetts’ firearm laws, which local officials have touted as a model for other states.
But legal observers have told the Globe it may be only a matter of time until that provision is challenged in court in the wake of the Bruen ruling.
Democratic state lawmakers have left open the possibility of pursuing a legislative response to the Supreme Court decision before their formal sessions end on July 31, though in what form is unclear.
State legislators in California, New Jersey, and New York have since passed legislation tightening their laws, with New York moving to require that people show “good moral character” when applying for a license.
Ivy Scott of the Globe staff contributed to this report.