For someone in Milford with a clean criminal record and certifiably sound mind, getting a license to carry a concealed weapon is not much tougher than filling out some paperwork and waiting for a background check.
Not in Newton. Novice gun owners there cannot get an unrestricted license to conceal and carry a weapon — even if they have a spotless record. “It’s been consistent policy: not for first-time applicants,” Newton police Lieutenant Edward Aucoin said. “I’ve had people who come in here and want to get a license without having shot a gun in their life.”
That difference, played out across the state, reflects a patchwork system in which geography, and gut instinct, can determine whether someone obtains what is known as an unrestricted Class A license, which allows him or her to carry not only a concealed weapon but loaded, large-capacity handguns, rifles, and shotguns without limits on use. It is the broadest gun license available under state law, held by 240,000 people.
Although applicants must clear a state background check — no felony convictions or restraining orders, for example — the final say goes to local police chiefs, who have discretion to reject any resident not deemed “suitable” for a license to carry. They also can limit permits to target practice, sport, hunting, or to people whose jobs are thought to put them at risk.
“I don’t put restrictions on licenses, period,” said Thomas O’Loughlin, the police chief in Milford, a town of 28,000 people that had 1,395 licenses to carry last year. “To me, it would be like the Registry restricting driver’s licenses and saying, ‘We’ll let you drive your car only to and from work.’ ”
But Newton police routinely restrict those gun licenses, usually by limiting them to target shooting and hunting. The city had 1,147 active Class A licenses in 2012 — 18 percent fewer than Milford despite being three times bigger.
Newton police, however, are willing to change their minds over time. Gun owners often are allowed to carry concealed weapons after six years, when licenses come up for renewal, if they have used the weapon appropriately and remain within state guidelines, Aucoin said.
Unrestricted licenses to carry a gun, which cost $100 and must be sought in an applicant’s place of residence, comprise about three-quarters of the gun permits in Massachusetts, according to data provided by the state Department of Public Safety. All Class A licenses — those with restrictions and those without — make up 82.4 percent of permits.
By contrast, Class B permits account for only 1.3 percent of the licenses in Massachusetts. That permit does not allow a gun to be carried concealed, but allows the purchase of all weapons sanctioned under the Class A license except for a large-capacity handgun.
“If I’m spending $100, I might as well get the gold card,” said Milford police Sergeant Michael Pasacane, describing how people approach the gun-license process. He oversees the application procedure.
The lowest-level gun permit, a Firearms Identification Card, allows the purchase and possession of small-capacity rifles or shotguns. A handgun cannot be bought or owned with such a license.
Nearly everyone interested in the licensing process — gun-control activists, gun-rights groups, and police — agree that the state lacks a consistent standard for issuing licenses to carry. They also acknowledge enforcing restrictions can be difficult and the courts might have to sort out town-to-town differences regarding police discretion.
“The [licensing] statute is written in a way that is open for interpretation, and that many people, including the courts, have struggled to explain what that language means,” said Jason Guida, a former director of the state Firearms Record Bureau, which maintains a database of licenses, sales by gun dealers, and private transfers.
At issue is language that allows police chiefs to grant unrestricted Class A permits “if it appears that the applicant is a suitable person to be issued such license, and that the applicant has good reason to fear injury to his person or property.”
The term “suitable person” is so broad and vague, gun-rights advocates argue, that an applicant can clear all the specific, statutory hurdles for crime and mental-health issues and still be denied a license.
A chief “might not like red-headed people,” said Brent Carlton, president of Comm2A, a gun-rights organization that filed suit last month in US District Court in Boston against four Massachusetts police chiefs who refused to issue unrestricted licenses to six plaintiffs. By limiting the licenses, Comm2A says, the chiefs denied the applicants the right to carry a weapon for self-defense.
“We would like to see, certainly, a consistent standard across all Massachusetts,” said Carlton, whose group sued the chiefs in Danvers, Peabody, Weymouth, and Worcester.
Justin Stasiowski, a 24-year-old copywriter, said his request for an unrestricted license was approved hassle-free in Wellesley in 2011. He carries a .38-caliber revolver nearly everywhere, except the gym.
Everyday life, he said, has suddenly become more dangerous and unpredictable.
“I’m kind of caught off guard by national events, mass shootings, and things, and I feel like you never really know when someone crazy can walk into a mall, or a movie theater, or whatever,” Stasiowski said.
Many urban police, who are generally less likely to approve unrestricted licenses than their rural counterparts, see the discretion to deny a license as an invaluable tool to keep the streets safer.
“Should fear alone give you the right to carry a firearm?” asked Jack Albert, the deputy police superintendent in Cambridge. “I appreciate the Second Amendment rights — I’m a gun owner myself — but do we want everyone walking the streets of Cambridge [with a handgun] when you don’t have a proper purpose?”
Albert said he is reluctant to issue an unrestricted Class A license to someone who wants a gun simply for assurance — a young applicant, for example, who is new to city living, has no experience with firearms, and is nervous in an urban environment. Cambridge puts limits on about 40 percent of its licenses to carry, Albert said.
In Boston, police said they want to be convinced that an unrestricted gun license is warranted before they issue one.
“They need to articulate a story that makes sense to us,” Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey said. “We have people living on top of each other, and the commissioner wants to make sure we give them out wisely and diligently.”
As examples, Linskey said, police might issue unrestricted licenses to corrections officers who have been threatened and to business owners who carry large amounts of cash.
The city’s 4,839 licenses to carry, or 7.8 licenses per 1,000 residents, is the fourth-lowest in the state. The town of Chesterfield in Western Massachusetts leads the state with 272.2 permits per 1,000 people.
Following the December shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, applications for Class A licenses surged in Massachusetts, police said.
“Everybody’s afraid that the Second Amendment is going away,” said Gloucester police Lieutenant Joe Aiello.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.