Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday began rushing legislation to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk that would tighten the state’s firearms laws in the wake of a Supreme Court decision expanding gun rights across the country.
The Democratic-led House passed language Thursday that would broaden who is prohibited from getting a license to carry, require gun owners to renew their licenses twice as often, and seek to mandate that a police official perform a “personal interview” of anyone applying for a license.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said that leaders in both chambers have agreed to expedite legislation he said would bring the state in line with last month’s high court decision, which ruled unconstitutional a New York law — similar to one in Massachusetts — that required applicants to prove a “special need” to get a license to carry a firearm in public.
Massachusetts lawmakers are also intent on “proactively safeguarding” other parts of the state’s existing laws from future legal challenges, Mariano said.
But the proposal immediately drew criticism. Police and others questioned the need to require renewals more often, and gun rights advocates predicted the legislative effort would fail to stave off litigation.
The language would tweak but keep a measure under which local chiefs can deny people a license if they’re deemed “unsuitable” — a standard the chiefs themselves would still determine. That, legal experts said, could rub against the high court justices’ call for all states to “employ objective,” not subjective, licensing standards.
The proposal, which the House tacked on to a late-session bond bill, would expand Massachusetts’ firearm laws in other ways. It would expand who is prohibited from being issued a license to carry a gun to anyone who has a temporary or permanent harassment prevention order against them, as well as to anyone who “poses a risk of danger to their self or others” by having a gun.
The bill would also cut the life of a license to carry in Massachusetts in half from six to three years, effectively requiring gun owners to seek renewals more often. And while some police already interview gun license applicants, legislative leaders said they’re seeking to require the practice across all departments and licensing authorities.
“People are free to apply for firearms. We want to make sure our licensing authorities are considering who should actually get them. Who is a responsible gun owner and who is not?” state Representative Michael S. Day, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters at the State House. “Our licensing scheme works. It’s why we have the safest state in the country when it comes to firearm violence. We are making sure they retain that responsibility.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling last month in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen was quickly felt in Massachusetts, where state officials told police this month to no longer place restrictions on people who, under Massachusetts law, fail to cite a “good reason” for carrying a concealed firearm.
Police in Boston, Springfield, and other communities have also begun to lift restrictions on hundreds of existing gun licenses, with potentially thousands more to come across the state.
The language House officials unveiled Thursday seeks to put those changes into law by eliminating the “good reason” standard and effectively barring police from imposing restrictions on licenses, such as only letting a person carry a gun from their house to the range and back.
Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka both said Thursday they are committed to passing the language before the Legislature’s formal sessions end July 31.
The Senate intends to take up the proposal next week, according to a Senate official.
On Thursday, the language moved at extraordinary speeds, at least relative to the State House’s famously deliberate standards. The House adopted the language, 120-33, just hours after legislative leaders announced their plans to hustle it to Baker’s desk, adding it to a bill that passed shortly thereafter and is intended to fund technological upgrades in the state’s court system.
Mariano said legislative leaders also plan to craft a more sweeping “comprehensive package” in the next legislative session that begins in January, and would consider “everything from updating our firearm licensing and training framework” and clamping down on so-called ghost guns to “refining tools” that would help identify those who pose a danger to themselves or others.
The question of how broadly the Legislature would act in response to the Supreme Court decision has hung over Beacon Hill for weeks.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion to the decision that Massachusetts, New York, and four other states potentially affected by the ruling could continue to require licenses for carrying handguns, as long as they “employ objective licensing requirements” like those in 43 other states.
Under those states’ 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.
The bill unveiled by the House on Thursday seeks to eliminate language that says local chiefs may deny a license based on a “reasonable exercise of discretion.” But it keeps the state’s suitability standard without adding substantial detail to who exactly should be considered “unsuitable,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League.
“They removed the word ‘discretion,’ but they’re codifying suitability with no standard. That’s subjective,” Wallace said. “The court specifically said, ‘No, that’s unconstitutional.’”
Wallace also warned that shortening the length of a license from six to three years could bog down licensing authorities, particularly in cities where applicants say they have received their licenses well past the 40-day window required by state law for police to act on an application.
Lawrence Police Chief Roy P. Vasque also questioned the need for shortening the life of a license. Police departments currently receive notifications when a license holder from their community is charged with a crime, giving them the ability to suspend a license, he said.
“Requiring them and us to do the paperwork every three years, I don’t know necessarily if we would catch anything,” said Vasque, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs.
Jason A. Guida, an attorney and former director of the Massachusetts Firearms Records Bureau, said he believes the proposed changes are unlikely to fend off legal challenges despite the Legislature’s efforts to inject more objective language into its laws.
“They missed the mark,” he said. “Subjectivity is still present in the statute.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.