SJC will review gun lock ruling

Law at odds with US high court

By David Abel
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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The state’s highest court plans to review the constitutionality of a recently challenged state law that requires gun owners to lock their weapons, making it the first test in Massachusetts of a landmark US Supreme Court ruling that Americans have the constitutional right to own guns and stow them as they see fit.

The SJC decided to review the law less than a year after a Lowell District Court judge dismissed firearms charges against a Billerica man whose handicapped son was accused of shooting a BB gun at a neighbor and who then showed police officers where his father kept other unlocked weapons.

The Lowell judge cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in dismissing the case against Richard Runyan of Billerica, who in April 2008 was charged with improperly storing a semiautomatic hunting rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a drawer full of ammunition.

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia vs. Heller that Washington, D.C., which had the nation’s strictest gun-control laws, could not require gun owners to keep their weapons disassembled and that the Second Amendment provides individuals the right to keep and bear arms for their personal use.

But the court did not indicate whether the Second Amendment supersedes state and local laws, and as a result, it has sparked lawsuits and rulings throughout the country similar to the decision in Lowell District Court.

In a brief to the Supreme Judicial Court filed this month, prosecutors in the Middlesex district attorney’s office argue that the Second Amendment applies only to Congress and the federal government. They argue that the Constitution allows states to make their own laws regulating gun ownership and that the Massachusetts Constitution has greater authority in this case.

The SJC has previously affirmed the state’s gun laws, which require gun owners to be licensed and to keep weapons in a locked container or equipped with safety devices, when not under their control.

“At issue here are the important goals of maintaining a citizen’s ability to possess firearms for the purpose of self-defense, while also properly securing those guns to prevent tragedies,’’ Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. said in a statement yesterday. “We know that current Massachusetts gun statutes have helped save lives, as the Commonwealth has one of the lowest firearm death rates in the nation. The Massachusetts statute strikes a reasonable balance by maintaining a citizen’s ability to defend him or herself in the home, while also protecting against the significant dangers to children.’’

Massachusetts has the nation’s second-lowest firearms death rate, at 3.28 per 100,000 people, according to 2006 data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hawaii has the lowest rate, at 2.58 deaths per 100,000 people.

But Brenden J. McMahon, the Lowell lawyer representing Runyan, and other civil libertarians argue that the Second Amendment should apply to Massachusetts as much as the First Amendment and the rest of the Constitution.

“This is a question left open by the Supreme Court,’’ said McMahon. “When the highest court of the land rules that the Constitution stands for the proposition that an individual has a right to own a gun, have it in their home, and have it readily available for self-defense, that seems to me persuasive that that should apply everywhere. . . . The prosecutors are arguing that Massachusetts should provide less protection than the US Constitution.’’

Constitutional lawyers familiar with state law and the Heller decision said they expect the Supreme Court to revisit the questions raised by the Runyan case.

“There are good arguments both ways,’’ said Lawrence Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at New England School of Law. “If the SJC concludes that the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to the states, then the Massachusetts Constitution controls the issue, and the SJC has held that reasonable regulations of firearms are constitutional. I think if the SJC goes that way, there’s an excellent chance the Supreme Court will be interested in this case.’’

Others predicted that the Supreme Court would eventually narrow its ruling. “When you’re talking about rights, you don’t pick and choose,’’ said Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer in Boston, who argues that the Second Amendment should apply to the states. “You either protect them all, or none of them are going to be safe.’’

The Lowell case began when police accused Runyan’s 18-year-old son, Alexander, who has Down syndrome, of firing eight shots from a BB gun at their neighbor’s kitchen window, while the neighbor was washing dishes. Asked why he fired at the neighbor, Runyan allegedly told officers, “I hate him.’’

When officers asked him if he had any other weapons, Runyan showed them his father’s guns, which were unlocked and beneath his father’s bed. They confiscated the weapons and later charged his father with failing to secure the guns and with having an expired license.

If the SJC or Supreme Court ultimately rule the trigger-lock law is unconstitutional, gun control advocates said, the consequences would be harsh. Seventeen states have rules requiring safe storage of unused weapons.

“The consequences will be that more people will die,’’ said John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence in Boston. “Trigger locks are the most effective at protecting children under 10 years old from accessing firearms. They could save a teenager’s life or a toddler’s, and I think they’re completely consistent with the D.C. case.’’

Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, added: “What it comes down to is that trigger locks are a matter of child safety.’’

David Abel can be reached at