LITTLETON - The top town elected official, Matthew Nordhaus, insisted at a Wednesday meeting that a cluster of 80-plus gun vendors operating out of an industrial mill have not been found to have committed any illegal activity — but he would not say if they had violated the attorney general’s controversial directives on the assault weapons ban.
Nordhaus, the Select Board chair, said the vendors “have met all requirements stipulated by the town,” and that the Littleton Police Department “has received no complaints of illegal, in-state sales by these dealers, nor has illegal activity been found during required inspections.”
The Globe reported on Sept. 10 that the Mill houses the largest cluster of federally-licensed firearms manufacturers and dealers in the nation and that many were openly defying Attorney General Maura Healey’s directives on the state’s assault weapons ban.
The Select Board of the town, which has a population of 10,000, scheduled the meeting after an outpouring of concern from residents over the Globe’s story.
Roughly 70 people attended the meeting. Nearly everyone who spoke was adamantly against the businesses — with one woman saying she stopped sending her sons to the music school inside the building, and another suggesting that the police chief be fired for issuing permits to so many gun stores.
Resident Molly Flannery got emotional as she read from a letter she said was signed by a dozen residents.
“It’s much too easy for these guns to fall into the wrong hands,” Flannery said, adding that the dealers should be replaced by “housing or businesses or art spaces that better serve and reflect our community.”
Numerous gun store owners from the Mill attended, but most listened quietly from the audience. Only one spoke, William Parker of Battle Road Firearms. He defended the town officials and the police chief, saying, “The businesses are permitted by right … There’s nothing that the town can do to stop it unless you change the law.”
Healey attempted to clarify Massachusetts’ assault weapons ban in 2016 when she issued a controversial enforcement notice threatening to bring charges against dealers who sold semi-automatic 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 has also said she would consider the sale of upper and lower receivers for these weapons — the parts of the gun that house the main operating mechanisms — the same as selling a complete assault weapon, even though the state does not regulate the sale of gun parts.
The Globe identified 25 dealers at the Mill selling weapons or parts that violated those directives.
Many in the gun community have insisted that Healey’s directives are not backed by state law and are, therefore, unenforceable.
Several Littleton residents expressed frustration on Wednesday that, nearly three weeks later, they still hadn’t received any clarity on whether the Mill vendors had actually violated the state’s assault weapons ban.
“What is Maura Healey doing?” Mary Dressel said. “She’s not responding to most of us who have reached out to her ... We need to know what is being done at the state level.”
“Is this breaking the law, or is Maura Healey incorrect from her assumption about the loopholes?” another resident, Julie Seitter, asked.
Nordhaus declined to answer the question. When asked by the Globe after the meeting, he said, “I’m not going to say they haven’t done anything illegal. It’s a gray area.”
Jim Finnerty, the owner of MassGunOwnership, which teaches gun safety courses at the Mill, said he and many of the dealers there have a lot of money riding on the building’s fate.
Finnerty said the extensive local, state, and federal licensing processes take at least four months, and all the while dealers must pay rent on a separate “place of business,” which is mandated by the state. It costs a minimum of $5,000 the first year to get started, but with equipment, the cost is much higher — his engraving machine alone was $20,000, he said.
But Finnerty said the income he generates can equal his regular salary and helped put both his kids through college. “Some retirees, I’m sure this is their main source of income,” he said. “It really is gonna hurt a lot of people.”
Parker of Battle Road Firearms ended his statement by addressing pleas from the many parents at the meeting who said they didn’t want so many gun dealers near where they send their children to day care and school. “For anybody that’s very worried about the safety of their children in that building, everybody in there is permitted, licensed, background-checked a hundred ways from Sunday. So there are really a lot of very good people there,” Parker said.
Immediately prior to the meeting, the Select Board held a closed executive session to discuss purchasing the 100,000-square-foot mill building, which was put on the market after the longtime owner died in April.
Nordhaus declined to go into details of the discussion during the open meeting, but told residents the purchase “is something we could do if the town wills it.”
Healey, now the Democratic nominee and front-runner in the governor’s race, has continued to decline to comment on the Globe’s findings.
On Monday, Governor Charlie Baker was asked about the Globe’s findings on WGBH. Baker responded, “It certainly seems to me like somebody should be talking to” the dealers, but made clear that it was Healey’s responsibility to pursue the matter.
“Her rules, her regs,” Baker said. “The enforcement authority will belong to her. We would be in a position, certainly, to support the attorney general on this.”