Weapons check

Want a gun license? Critics say too much depends on where in the state you hang your holster.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ric Kahn and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

There was his birth certificate, driver's license, and the utility bill he handed over to prove who he was and where he lived, he says. Plus the letter verifying his membership in a gun club, and the copy of his safety certificate, and that passing grade on his marksmanship test. Not to mention being photographed, and fingerprinted for the background check.

By the time he was finished with the process of applying for a license to carry a concealed handgun in Boston a few years back, Jim Lynch says, he was made to feel like an outlaw.

Except, he notes, the bad guys don't bother getting a license.

"It's ironic," says Lynch, a 38-year-old writer for a computer-publishing company. "The gangbangers don't pay any attention to the rules."

Though he eventually got a license and a .40-caliber pistol - albeit with strict limitations on its use - Lynch did what any frustrated citizen might have: He moved to New Hampshire.

There, he says, the application to carry a concealed gun is a veritable breeze: valid ID, three references, a background check - and a 14-day maximum wait time versus up to eight weeks in Boston.

"You're not treated as a criminal in New Hampshire," says Lynch, who is gay and says he carries a firearm for self-protection. "You're an actual citizen."

Many local gun owners are now similarly upset over what they see as licensing measures that are chokingly tight and widely inconsistent - not only from state to state but from city to town.

In a debate that strikes at the heart of local control, others insist it's dangerous to pull back on city or town scrutiny, saying each municipality has a different gun gestalt.

With a closely followed Washington, D.C. case on the gun-control issue, District of Columbia v. Heller, pending before the US Supreme Court, the Gun Owners' Action League of Massachusetts is pushing forward with its contention that local police chiefs here are straying so far from the state rules of gun licensure with their add-ons that they themselves are breaking the law.

In a March letter, the league asked Attorney General Martha Coakley to ensure that "the state take responsibility of an out-of-control system and curb the illegal activities being conducted by its licensing agents."

Within that document, and in a later interview, league executive director Jim Wallace noted numerous examples of what he calls the current community hodgepodge. While the state forbids felons from obtaining certain gun licenses, for example, Wallace says many departments subjectively exclude those merely charged with crimes, but not convicted.

Wallace included several samples from City Weekly communities, from Cambridge's charging gun applicants $20 more than the statutory $100 fee - which the city fixed after the league last year complained to the state inspector general - to Boston and Brookline requiring more firearms aptitude than the state's basic licensing form spells out.

The locals can be strict: Between 2004 and 2007, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville's gun-license denial rates for Class A firearms (which includes concealed handguns and large-capacity-ammo rifles) each fell within the top 11 percent of more than 300 cities and towns statewide, according to data from the Criminal History Systems Board.

Following up on his letter, Wallace met with Coakley late last month to press the league's request that police chiefs statewide use uniform criteria to judge gun-license applicants.

Melissa Karpinsky, a spokeswoman for Coakley, described the meeting as productive and said, "We're in the process of reviewing the concerns" raised.

Citing a dramatic decline in the number of licensed gun owners statewide, from approximately 1.5 million before the state's Gun Control Act of 1998, according to the league, to about 240,000 today, Wallace says that some local chiefs have gone beyond basics like barring violent lawbreakers and turned a simple clause in the statute about whether an applicant is "suitable" into veritable veto power - even as widespread crime plagues many communities.

"It's hurdle after hurdle after hurdle . . . to discourage people," says Wallace. "We're talking about the good guys here, not the criminals."

But what gun owners call time-consuming and expensive roadblocks to getting licensed, local police view as necessary safeguards.

In Brookline, as in Boston, police officials make no apology for insisting that handgun applicants go beyond the state-required basic firearms safety course by passing a shooting test and belonging to a gun club.

"When you get a driver's license, you practice driving," says Sergeant Paul Cullinane, Brookline's identification/firearms licensing supervisor. "This is the chief's way of saying you need to get a little practice if you're going to get a license to carry. This isn't the Wild West."

Law enforcement authorities say that the routine of giving local police discretion over who gets to carry a gun is not only supported by logic, but by legal standing.

A Norfolk Superior Court case earlier this year backed the Brookline police chief's denial of a gun license to a resident who refused to take a firing range test.

That ruling invoked an earlier case that supported the Boston police commissioner's asking for proof of shooting proficiency, which said that while the law did not require a skills test, "it did not prohibit a valid test for minimal competency."

Lieutenant Mark Harrington, commander of Boston's licensing unit, says he doesn't think that's too much to ask.

"If you're going to have a gun," he says, "I think you should know how to use it."

John Rosenthal, cofounder of the nonprofit group Stop Handgun Violence, says it would be foolish to lighten up on licensing.

"We make it at least a little bit harder for criminals and terrorists to get guns," he says.

But gun owners say the hard-line policies can have a chilling effect on law-abiding folks.

Jamaica Plain resident Caleb Winder says he already went through a four-trip-to-police-HQ rigmarole to obtain a shotgun permit for bird-hunting. Now, the 36-year-old venture capitalist wants a handgun for when he carries sensitive documents, but the wads of red tape are giving him pause.

"It's making it difficult for average citizens to protect themselves," he says.

Jim Lynch says that when he lived in Boston he was confined to using his gun for activities such as target practice, and could not regularly carry it for self-defense on the streets of the city.

Now, in small-town New Hampshire, he says he's at peace being able to pack his piece without restriction.

"When I leave the house," he says, "I reach for my keys, pistol, and cellphone."

Ric Kahn can be reached at, Matt Carroll at

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