Outraged residents of Littleton are calling for a crackdown on the town’s burgeoning gun industry after they learned from a Globe story that an old elastic mill near the center of town is home to the largest cluster of federally licensed gun manufacturers and dealers in the nation. The vendors include dozens who were exploiting loopholes and gray areas in the law to sell military-style firearms and other guns forbidden by the state.
Town officials said they’ve never been so inundated by concern about an issue, with many residents calling for the 80-plus gun tenants in the building to be forced out.
“Dozens have reached out to me through e-mail, Facebook, or personal conversations,” said Matthew Nordhaus, the town’s Select Board chair. “It’s been unanimously concerned and opposed to the shops.”
On Monday morning, the Select Board held a closed-door meeting to discuss purchasing the privately owned building so the board could control its fate. That evening, the Planning Board considered drafting a zoning ordinance to strictly limit new gun dealers in town. The select board plans to hold a meeting this week to respond to resident concerns about the Globe’s findings.
Officials in this town of 10,000 say they don’t have nearly enough resources to police “The Mill,” where the number of gun tenants has soared from three to at least 80 over the last eight years, many of them openly defying Attorney General Maura Healey’s efforts to close loopholes in the state’s assault weapons ban. The chief of the 21-member Police Department, Matthew Pinard, has said that officers have found only a handful of violations among the vendors, but admitted his force lacks the time and expertise to thoroughly review all transactions.
“We’re just a small little outfit here,” Mark Montanari, the Planning Board chair, said Monday night. “If we could get some state help going in and checking everybody and see what they’re actually selling and if it’s legal to sell it, that would be great.”
Since the Globe’s story ran on Sept. 10, Pinard said he’s been in contact with the attorney general’s office, the Middlesex district attorney, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But Pinard said he “will not comment on any investigation, whether it is ongoing or in the future.”
In the meantime, some Littleton officials hope a developer will make all the gun dealers disappear. The sprawling 19-century industrial building has been listed for sale since the longtime owner died in April and control of the property went to his widow and the daughters of his late business partner.
“This is not a situation that we would have chosen,” Wilhelmina Ulbrich, one of the heirs, told the Globe in July. “The fact that this kind of industry is allowed to happen in this country is kind of mind-boggling.”
Ulbrich said last week that she and the other owners “decided several months ago to disallow new gun tenants.”
Montanari, the Planning Board chair, said at Monday’s meeting the town is imploring the owners to sell the property to someone who would redevelop it rather than continue leasing it to the current tenants. “Hopefully we can get somebody who wants to buy the building, to reposition it, and then hopefully most of our problems will go away,” he said.
More than just gun dealers would be displaced if the 100,000-square-foot Mill were shut down. Ulbrich said three-quarters of the space is occupied by non-gun businesses, such as furniture and repair shops, a radio station, a piano restoration company, and a music school.
For gun enthusiasts, the Mill has become a kind of refuge in deep blue Massachusetts, and a place where they can find almost any kind of gun — including pistols that aren’t on the state’s approved roster, and AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons. Such sales to buyers who aren’t in law enforcement could be a felony in this state, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But the dealers have insisted that by modifying the weapons, or disassembling them and selling them as parts, their transactions are perfectly legal.
After the Globe’s story was published, several dealers said they’ve seen an uptick in foot traffic, but they’ve also received hate mail and death threats.
As for the sudden push to shut them down, one dealer said vendors like him are accustomed to blustering outrage over guns in this state. “If they take action against us, it becomes more interesting nationally,” the dealer said, adding, “at the end of the day, what occurs at the Mill is lawful.”
None of the gun dealers at the Mill would comment using their name.
The Mill has emerged as a test for Healey’s attempt to strengthen enforcement of the state’s assault weapons ban. In 2016, she issued a controversial notice outlining how she would enforce the ban, threatening to bring charges against dealers who sold semiautomatic weapons with modifications meant to ensure that they didn’t meet the legal definition of a banned “assault weapon.” Such modifications had been an accepted practice in the trade for nearly two decades.
Healey’s notice has been upheld in court, but her office has yet to charge a single dealer with violating the assault weapons ban, her spokesperson confirmed. And her window to do so is closing; she’s finishing up her second term and is now the front-runner for governor.
With six years of no enforcement, some in the gun world, including many Mill dealers, have gotten more brazen in ignoring her decrees. The longtime Mill property manager, Jack Lorenz, even has a saying: “Healey language is not spoken at the Mill.”
The Globe, in its Sept. 10 story, identified 16 dealers there who advertised or displayed semiautomatic weapons that would meet the legal definition of an “assault weapon,” but for modifications of the sort Healey forbid. The Globe also identified 20 vendors who advertised or displayed upper and lower receivers for these weapons — that parts of the gun that house the main operating mechanisms — which Healey has said would be treated legally as the same as selling a complete assault weapon.
Only one of the 25 dealers contacted by the Globe denied that they were selling items that defied Healey’s assault weapon directives. Seven dealers admitted to it — insisting that Healey’s directives aren’t supported by law and are unenforceable.
Dealers also said it’s common for a dealer to disassemble a gun forbidden under various state laws, then sell the customer some of the parts and enlist a second dealer to sell the remaining parts. They believe that this is legal because the state doesn’t regulate the sale of gun parts.
The Globe asked gun experts to review dozens of screenshots of advertisements by Mill dealers to see if they were for guns or parts that were forbidden under Healey’s guidance.
Gary Klein, a legal consultant who, as assistant attorney general, was the lead architect of the 2016 enforcement notice, said many “appear to be for products that it would be illegal for anyone other than a law enforcement officer to own in Massachusetts,” adding that further investigation is needed to determine if any criminal act or civil violation took place.
Healey’s office would not comment on the advertisements, and her spokesperson Jillian Fennimore said she “cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation” into the Mill.
Fennimore added that Healey’s office has offered assistance and guidance to local officials following the Globe’s story, but declined to specify.
The State Police and ATF also declined to comment.
Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan would not say if she was looking into whether any of the dealers at the Mill had committed a crime.
But Ryan said she was already aware that some dealers there were selling the parts to make untraceable “ghost guns,” and that she will continue to push for legislation that would make it easier to criminally charge people for selling or possessing such guns.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat, said he’s received more than 50 calls and e-mails from Littleton residents concerned about the Globe’s findings. He said he is considering spearheading bills to codify the attorney general’s enforcement notice, regulate the sale of gun parts, limit the number of gun dealers allowed within a certain proximity of each other, and either provide funding for local police to enforce state gun laws or turn the responsibility over to the State Police.
But, as for settling the immediate question of whether any of the 80-plus vendors at the Mill has been violating the state’s assault weapons ban, Eldridge and town officials said state authorities should step in.
“It’s a questionable legal area on what you’re allowed and not allowed to do, and what will withstand a legal challenge. So obviously we need the help of the attorney general in enforcing whatever the regulations are,” Select Board member Mark Rambacher said. “I don’t believe that we can do it by ourselves.”
Sarah Ryley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MissRyley.