Massachusetts gun laws among strictest in nation

Officials call for federal laws to match Massachusetts

  • Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle. This type of rifle was used in the Orlando shootings Sunday. AP

Published: 6/14/2016 8:40:33 PM

A dozen years after the federal ban on assault weapons expired, provisions against certain semiautomatic weapons remain on the books in Massachusetts, making the state one of the strictest in the nation on guns.

In what has become commonplace after mass shooting incidents, the debate over access to guns reignited in the wake of the attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The shooter, Omar Mateen, used an AR-15-style assault rifle and a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol to kill at least 49 people and wound 53 others early Sunday.

That particular rifle is banned in Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey said Monday when calling for a reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban.

Several other state and federal officials this week echoed her call to bring federal gun control laws up to par with those in Massachusetts. The Bay State gun laws are far stricter than those in other states, including Florida.

Rifles similar to the one Mateen had were used in other recent mass shootings: in 2012 at a movie theater (12 killed and 58 wounded) in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School (27 killed and 2 wounded) in Newtown, Connecticut, and last year at a government building 14 killed and 20 wounded) in San Bernardino, California.

The Massachusetts assault weapons ban specifically refers to the language used in the 1994 federal law, which expired automatically in 2004.

Fully automatic guns have been heavily regulated since the 1930s. The 1994 ban focused on regulating semiautomatic weapons — those that reload automatically but fire one bullet with each pull of the trigger.

The law prohibited certain models of AR-15s and AK-47s as well as those with certain features such as pistol grips and bayonet mounts. It also limited the number of bullets a magazine could carry to no more than 10.

The Massachusetts ban includes the same restrictions in the 1994 federal law.Then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed a permanent ban into law in 2004. Access to guns was further restricted in 2014.

“I think we have some of the strictest gun laws in the country,” Easthampton Police Chief Bruce W. McMahon said Tuesday. “That’s without a doubt.”

People who want to buy a rifle, shotgun or handgun in Florida do not need a permit or license, though they must pass a federal background check, as in every state.

Mateen passed background checks when legally purchasing the two guns used in Sunday’s massacre despite the fact that he was investigated twice by the FBI.

In Massachusetts, all gun owners are required to possess one of two types of licenses.

A firearms identification card is required to purchase, possess or transport a rifle or shotgun. A license to carry is required to have a concealed handgun.

Licenses are granted at the discretion of local police chiefs provided that applicants have met certain criteria including passing several background checks and the completion of a safety course.

Gun safety classes

Kirk Whatley, of Hadley, is one of several people certified by the State Police to teach the gun safety classes in western Massachusetts.

His daylong classes include classroom instruction followed by an exam as well as a significant amount of practical experience on the shooting range.

“You basically learn how a pistol functions, the parts of a pistol, you learn the components that make up ammunition,” Whatley said. “The major theme throughout the entire training is safety. The more educated you are, not only you’ll be that much safer, but you in turn will be a better ambassador for other firearm owners.”

After passing an exam, students spend up to four hours firing various calibers of guns on a shooting range. They are given a certificate of completion only if Whatley believes they can safely handle a gun.

Whatley said many, but not all communities, require target training as part of their licensing requirements.

Like many facets of gun licensing in the state, requirements can change depending on where one is applying for a permit. “It can vary wildly from town to town,” he said.

For example, Whatley said in Springfield many of his students are given restricted licenses that allow only for hunting and target practice. That means that owners must have their gun locked in the trunk of their vehicle until they get to the range or to where they are hunting. Ammunition must be kept in a separate, locked container, he said.

An unrestricted license to carry allows holders to carry guns in a concealed manner on their person.

McMahon said after someone has taken the gun safety course, the Easthampton Police Department conducts a background check. If they pass, the applicant’s fingerprints are sent to the FBI while state and federal background checks are conducted. If they pass those checks, they come back to the police station and are granted a license.

The rules under which licenses are issued are very specific and constantly changing, McMahon said.

“There’s one solid book for firearms licensing — it’s 500-plus pages,” he said. “It’s very in-depth here in Massachusetts.”

Reinstating the ban

Massachusetts is one of seven states and the District of Columbia to have an assault weapons ban, Healey said. But she said the patchwork of gun laws across the country make for a piecemeal solution to a national problem.

Reinstating the federal ban would make it harder for would-be killers to get their hands on assault weapons, she said.

“Is it going to end all violence? No,” she said. “But this is about saving lives and taking steps to end this terrible accumulation of mass shootings that we have seen time and time again.”

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama echoed Healey.

“We have to make it harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on weapons of war that let them kill dozens of innocents,” Obama said. “Reinstate the assault weapons ban, make it harder for terrorists to use these weapons to kill us.”

Democrats in Congress led several unsuccessful attempts to revive the ban, most recently in 2013.

Congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, on Tuesday spoke on the House floor in support of reinstating the ban.

“These are weapons of war intended to cause mass casualties in a matter of minutes and have no place in our homes and our communities,” he said.

Whatley said he disagrees with such rhetoric.

“Assault weapon or assault rifle is something created by the media,” he said. “They always show this black gun on TV that has this certain look to it — it just looks evil, looks nasty. There is another version of that gun that has a wood stalk … the one that’s got wood on it is recognized as a legitimate sport rifle.”

The Pink Pistols

The Pink Pistols, an LGBT gun rights advocacy group, issued a statement Sunday urging people to blame the perpetrator of the Orlando shooting, not his weapon.

“A human being did this. The human being’s tools are unimportant when compared to the bleakness of that person’s soul,” Gwendolyn Patton, first speaker of the Pink Pistols said in a statement. “Our job now is not to demonize the man’s tools, but to condemn his acts and work to prevent such acts in the future.”

To that point, Whatley said that many features listed in the assault weapons ban are cosmetic and do not automatically make weapons more deadly, including the ban on pistol grips and adjustable or collapsible stocks.

He said he would be in favor of minimum sentencing requirements specifically for felonies committed with a firearm, rather than to restrict the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners.

“In Massachusetts having an adjustable stock on your gun makes it an assault rifle, makes it a weapon of war, makes it a killing machine,” he said. “Massachusetts is one of the most gun-unfriendly states in the United States of America with our laws, rules and regulations.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Chris Lindahl can be reached at


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