Baker defends stance on gun permits, but judges disagree
Governor Charlie Baker on Monday defended his administration’s role in a legal battle over firearm licenses, arguing the state was required to tell local police chiefs that hundreds of people should have their permits revoked at the urging of federal officials.
But the stance continues to meet resistance at the district court level, where at least seven judges — including two last week — have ordered that gun licenses be reinstated, with one dismissing the reliance on the state’s legal position as “capricious.”
The issue has drawn new attention since the Globe reported that the state was resisting orders from judges who charged that officials had overstepped their legal authority by urging local officials to pull the gun licenses of roughly 340 people, some of whom were convicted of misdemeanors decades ago.
Despite the court orders, the administration has refused to reinstate the licenses, potentially exposing the state to litigation.
The complicated legal fight began in May, when administration officials said the state’s Firearm Licensing Review Board, created in 2004 to consider whether people with misdemeanor convictions could have a firearms license, had been approving applicants who they say should have been disqualified under federal rules.
The state action was prompted by officials from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, who met with state officials in April.
On Monday, Baker, calling the situation troubling “for everyone who is involved,” stressed that federal officials “made very clear to us” that the licensing board’s decisions should be voided. He said that required the state to notify local officials “that we were getting an interpretation from the feds that was different than the one that had been in place here in Massachusetts.”
Critics contend the stance is perplexing, given the state’s decision to uphold state law in other areas, such as marijuana legalization, even when it directly contradicts federal law. But Baker rejected the comparison.
“The US attorney made very clear that he was not going to pursue prosecution with respect to marijuana. The ATF – the federal entity that oversees gun laws – had a very different point of view with respect to this issue,” Baker said, arguing that state law also requires gun owners to meet both state and federal standards.
“It’s a different set of statutes, a different set of requirements,” he said.
But courts have repeatedly rebuffed the state’s arguments. Last week, judges in Gloucester and Taunton joined their counterparts in five other district courts in ordering that a gun license be reinstated.
In one case, a Seekonk man had been disqualified because he pleaded guilty in 1983 to receiving stolen property under $100. Gerald Arata successfully petitioned to the licensing board to have his right to a license restored in 2013, only to have the permit revoked by Seekonk police after the state’s directive in May.
Judge Michael D. Brennan, a Baker appointee, ruled last week that the state and federal officials’ legal position was an “error” and that “Seekonk’s licensing authority’s reliance on it was erroneous, arbitrary and capricious.”
In Gloucester, Judge Michael A. Patten also sided with a petitioner, ruling on Friday that “there are no reasonable grounds for suspending” the license of John T. McDonough since the licensing board had restored McDonough’s rights after a 2006 drunk-driving conviction.
Representative Harold P. Naughton, a Clinton Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s public safety committee, said he’s willing to explore legislation addressing the issues raised by the differences in state and federal law. But with weeks until a new legislative session begins and potentially more litigation to follow, action on Beacon Hill doesn’t appear imminent.
“We’re almost in a response mode at this stage of the game,” Naughton said of cases still working through the court system. But he did express concern for the 340 people who’ve lost their licenses.
“There should be some mechanism by which those people, who are otherwise law-abiding citizens, should be able to exercise their right” to own a gun, he said.