Top state lawmakers and police chiefs vowed last week to increase oversight of gun dealers in response to a Globe investigation that found hundreds of dealers hadn’t received a single state inspection in nearly six years, and others had only been subjected to cursory walk-throughs by local police.
A spokesperson for Governor-elect Maura Healey, a member of Attorney General-elect Andrea Campbell’s transition team, as well as two statewide police association leaders all said they were working on ways to ensure that each of the state’s roughly 434 dealers gets a thorough inspection every year, as required by state law.
“In order for our strong gun laws to be effective, they need to be enforced,” Healey spokeswoman Karissa Hand said.
Hand said Healey will direct her secretary of Public Safety and Security, who has not yet been named, to focus on the issue and ensure that local police “have better training and support” to conduct inspections.
The Legislature made police the front-line enforcers of state gun laws in the Gun Control Act of 1998, which was hailed at the time as the strictest set of gun laws in the nation. Their duties include inspecting the “records and inventory” of every gun dealer each year.
But the inspection mandate came with little support, guidance, or accountability from state agencies. Officials from dozens of police departments recently told the Globe they had no idea they were supposed to be doing them.
In September and October, the Globe requested inspection and enforcement records from 112 departments that oversee dealers responsible for 97 percent of the state’s 659,000 in-person gun sales reported since 2017.
Officials from 62 departments said they hadn’t inspected a single dealer in that time.
Only 16 departments had records showing they did the annual inspections, according to the Globe’s Dec. 10 investigation. The rest either did the inspections sporadically, just started doing them, or said they did them but kept no record.
“It’s a law that very few of us were aware of,” said Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque, who heads the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association. “The ones that were, were a little bit overwhelmed trying to do it, and others were certainly trying to figure out if they were doing it correctly.”
Vasque said his organization asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help them develop training materials for local police.
Retired Northborough police chief Mark Leahy, who now heads the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, also said many of its members were under the impression that the ATF was handling the inspections.
But the ATF only gets around to inspecting each gun dealer roughly once every eight years, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Brady: United Against Gun Violence.
The Globe previously reported that at least 25 of the gun vendors operating at an old industrial mill in Littleton, a town of 10,000 just northwest of Boston, had been openly defying directives Healey issued during her first term as attorney general on her interpretation of the state’s assault weapons ban, by selling guns or gun parts that she had explicitly said were forbidden.
Mill dealers who spoke to the Globe insisted Healey’s interpretation wasn’t backed by state law, and that their transactions are all legal because they work with other dealers to sell customers any prohibited guns in parts — which the state doesn’t regulate.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat whose district includes Littleton, said his office is working on three bills that would address the Globe’s findings. The legislation would close loopholes in the state’s assault weapons ban, regulate the sale of gun parts, and make the State Police responsible for inspecting gun dealers instead of local police.
Eldridge said when he visited the mill, he saw “guns that are being sold there that could not be sold to me in one piece, but could be sold to me if taken apart, which is extraordinarily concerning.”
He also spoke with Littleton’s police chief, who only learned of the inspection requirement in 2019, when there were already more than 60 state-licensed dealers at the mill. “It does seem that many police departments either don’t have the support, the funding, or the proper guidance about how to do inspections,” Eldridge said. “I think it would be better if the State Police was put in charge.”
Vasque, of the Major City Chiefs of Police Association, agreed. “If you can create a unit that specializes in something,” he said, “I think you’ll have people highly trained, who know what they’re doing, know what they’re looking for, so that would be more effective.”
Gary Klein, who as an assistant attorney general during Healey’s first term in the office led initiatives to enforce gun laws on dealers, said he’d like to see the AG’s office step up those efforts again.
Klein helped develop incoming attorney general Campbell’s lengthy platform on guns, and is now working on those initiatives on her transition team. He was not authorized to speak on Campbell’s behalf.
Word of enforcement spreads fast in the gun world and “has a chilling effect” on the small number of dealers that “push the envelope on what can be legally sold, and make sales that are in the gray area, or sometimes over the line,” Klein said.
“A few prosecutions would go a long way because none of the dealers want to lose their license.”