In a reversal, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has told local police chiefs it will not block the court-ordered reinstatement of certain firearm licenses, opening up a new front in a legal fight that could touch hundreds of prospective gun owners.
After initially resisting judicial rulings, the state has moved to process the permits of at least a dozen people who had their licenses stripped, even though the state had once cleared them to own a firearm.
But the state’s relenting in the face of mounting court pressure comes with limits. Officials at the Firearms Records Bureau, which processes gun permits, said they will reinstate a license when ordered to do so by a court, and they continue to believe that people with certain misdemeanor convictions remain federally prohibited from owning a gun.
That means that hundreds of others who had their licenses revoked under the same legal interpretation will not have them restored unless they, too, win an appeal before a judge.
It promises to extend what attorneys and petitioners have described as an onerous process, during which district court judges have repeatedly rebuffed the state’s legal arguments.
“It’s a waste of time; it’s a waste of resources,” said Jason A. Guida, a former attorney for a state firearms board who has represented more than a dozen people who successfully appealed to win back their license, including a former state trooper. “Both individual license holders and local police departments are still being forced to go to court at their expense and litigate these issues, knowing full well that not a single judge has ruled in support of this administration’s decision.”
The legal clash began in May, when state officials told local chiefs that the state’s Firearm Licensing Review Board, created in 2004 to consider whether people with misdemeanor criminal convictions could have a firearms license, had been clearing applicants who the administration said should be otherwise disqualified under federal rules. The state’s new interpretation was prompted by arguments from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
State officials then urged chiefs — by law, the firearm licensing authority — to pull licenses from roughly 340 people.
It prompted a wave of legal challenges, and in at least 14 cases, district court judges have ruled in the petitioner’s favor, saying either the state had overstepped its legal authority or, in one recent case, relied on an “erroneous legal interpretation,” according to a judge who ruled in favor of Phil Jones, a West Roxbury man who the state had originally cleared to own a gun in 2005.
“The revocation of the license previously held by Jones for over twelve years constituted an abuse of discretion,” Judge Kathleen E. Coffey wrote in her Jan. 25 decision.
But as the court orders began to mount, the state dug in. In late November, Daniel Bennett, then Baker’s public safety secretary, told local police chiefs that even if a court ordered, the state would not issue the permit, arguing that a separate state law prohibits them from licensing a “federally prohibited person.”
Bennett, who stepped down in December, said then that the administration expected the move would spur lawsuits against the state.
The state’s stance, however, has since shifted. Police officials in Milford and Charlton said they were told in recent days that licenses in their towns will now be restored. The state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, which oversees the Firearms Records Bureau, has reinstated 12 so far, each time after the local police department forwarded state officials a court order, according to the agency.
Felix Browne, a spokesman, declined to comment on what prompted the change, other than pointing to the court orders.
“We continue to agree with guidance provided by ATF that these individuals remain federally prohibited,” he said.
Milford police Chief Thomas J. O’Loughlin, who had advocated that a judge restore the license of a former state trooper who had her firearm license stripped under the state’s new directive, said the Firearms Records Bureau notified him on Jan. 25 that it would now issue the license, without giving a reason why.
“The only thing that we were told is that the [Firearms Records Bureau]is going to comply with the Court order and issue the LTC,” said O’Loughlin, using the acronym for License to Carry, a type of permit. The chief had been critical of the state’s decision to resist the judge’s ruling.
“I believe that they were incorrect in their application of the law,” he said of state officials.
Richard McGrath, the court and records officer for the Charlton Police Department, said he had contacted state officials about a separate case on Monday when he was told that a successful petitioner in that town would be reinstated, even though state officials still consider him federally prohibited from carrying a gun.
“We, as the Charlton Police Department, do not enforce federal laws,” McGrath said. “That’s what they have federal officers for.”
When exactly each of the licenses will be restored is not clear. In Boston, for example, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department said it is still reviewing the Jan. 25 decision involving Jones, the 54-year-old West Roxbury man.
Jones, who had his gun license revoked following a 1998 drunk-driving conviction, had successfully petitioned for reinstatement before the state’s review board in 2005, only to have Boston police strip it again in the wake of the state’s May directive.
He said he has since spent at least $2,500 in legal costs and transfer fees for the firearms he had turn over. “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” he said.