Metro

State urges police chiefs to strip gun licenses from hundreds previously approved

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/file 2013
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts.

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration is urging local police chiefs to strip gun licenses from hundreds of people who were previously cleared by a state board to own a firearm, after regulators warned the decisions ran afoul of federal law.

The state began notifying police chiefs late last month after federal law enforcement officials said that the state’s Firearms License Review Board, which considers whether people with misdemeanor criminal convictions should have a license, was clearing applicants who should have been disqualified under federal rules.

As a result, the board is now asking local police chiefs — who have the authority to decide who can legally own a gun — to pull the licenses from roughly 340 people who have received approval since the board was created in 2004. That group, according to the board’s former general counsel, includes active police officers who without an active license could be in danger of losing their jobs.

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And the number of those who could have their licenses stripped is likely to grow. The new legal interpretation could also affect an undetermined number of others who, under a separate state statute, were allowed to get a gun license five years after they were convicted or completed probation for certain types of misdemeanors. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives told the state that this practice also runs counter to federal law, and that those gun owners also shouldn’t be licensed.

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Baker administration officials said they are now reviewing records to identify how many additional license-holders are federally prohibited.

They say that number is likely small, and stressed that both groups of people likely make up less than 1 percent of the 434,000 active licenses the state has issued allowing people to legally own handguns, rifles, and shotguns.

Federal law specifies that anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or a crime that carries a prison term of two years or less under state law isn’t specifically barred from owning a gun. But in Massachusetts, some crimes, while classified as a misdemeanor, can carry sentences of 2½ years.

While the Firearms License Review Board was created to “restore the rights” of a resident who was convicted of such a misdemeanor to own a gun, the ATF — citing a decade-old case law — argues that allowing them to be licensed is still in violation of federal statute.

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State officials say they now agree. But gun owners and attorneys say the interpretation marks a significant shift at the state level and effectively renders the purpose of the Firearms License Review Board moot.

“I think their interpretation, at a minimum, frustrates the intent of the Legislature when they created this board,” said attorney Jason A. Guida, a former general counsel to the board who now represents prospective gun owners. He said some of his clients who have gone before the board include active police officers.

Guida, who also has a pending lawsuit against the board after it failed to meet for months, compared the situation to the conflict between state and federal law over legalized marijuana.

“I think it has constitutional implications,” he said. “It affects not only people who spent thousands of dollars to restore their rights [before the board], but those in the future who are looking for some type of restoration.”

Created in 2004, the Firearms License Review Board holds hearings to consider petitions from people who have been convicted of misdemeanors, such as operating under the influence, but want to apply for a license.

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If applicants are cleared by the board, they must then win approval from their local police chief, who has the final say in granting a license.

‘On the one hand, the state told the citizen, “You’re fine,” and then the federal government comes in and says, “You’re not.” ’

The state’s decision to effectively throw out the board’s decisions over nearly 14 years came after ATF contacted it last year, prompting the board to suspend its meetings for several months.

State officials and ATF attorneys met on April 20, and, Agapi Koulouris, the board’s general counsel, later notified the agency that the state’s Firearms Records Bureau, which processes licenses approved on the local level, would no longer do so for anyone who had been cleared by the board.

“We carefully reviewed the statute, the relevant case law and the points that you raised in our meeting and are persuaded that your view of federal law is correct,” Koulouris wrote in the May 11 letter.

Less than two weeks later, James F. Slater III, the commissioner of the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, wrote to the state’s police chiefs to “encourage” them to revoke the license of anyone in their town or city whom the state identified as falling under the new interpretation. In the May 23 letter to the police chiefs, he also stressed that “moving forward, the DCJIS . . . will be applying the interpretation of federal law advanced by the ATF.”

“It’s a difficult scenario,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, which has already heard from some people whose licenses were tossed.

“On the one hand, the state told the citizen, ‘You’re fine,’ and then the federal government comes in and says, ‘You’re not.’ ”

State officials could not say what prompted ATF to flag the issue. Matthew O’Shaughnessy, a spokesman in ATF’s Boston bureau, said federal officials have had “discussions” with the state over several years but he could not say when they may have started.

“This has been a debate for a long period,” he said.

It leaves chiefs to decide whether to pull an individual’s license or allow the person to keep it until the next renewal date, when the state will refuse to process it. A license is valid for six years.

Sergeant John Boyle, a Boston police spokesman, said the department is still reviewing the letters.

“The police commissioner takes the issuance of licenses to carry seriously and makes sure that anyone that is licensed to carry a firearm in the city of Boston is suitable to do so,” he said.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said he’d move to immediately revoke the license of anyone identified in his city.

“I’d rather err on the side of public safety,” said Kyes, who raised the possibility of someone “getting involved with something” with a gun before their license expires. “The first question will be, ‘How did this person have a license to carry?’ ”

State officials said the Firearms License Review Board will also continue to meet, as required by statute.

But the board is already warning petitioners on its website that any decision it makes “is unlikely to change” whether they can actually be licensed to carry.

“It’s kind of an empty board,” said Wallace.

Felix Browne — a spokesman for the Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the board — said officials there are open to discussing with the Legislature whether to change the law establishing the board.

The issue comes as the Legislature has debated another change to its gun laws. Lawmakers are hashing out an agreement over a bill that would give judges the power to strip weapons from individuals red-flagged as a danger to themselves or others.

Baker is expected to sign the version that ends up on his desk.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout