Last in a series chronicling a Sentinel reporter’s application for a firearms license in Massachusetts.
By Michael Hartwell
LEOMINSTER — It took exactly 150 days from when I walked into my local police department to learn how to get a firearm license to when I finally received it in the mail Thursday.
What’s up for debate is how many days the actual process took.
A spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said it was 85 days, counting from when I completed my application interview with the Leominster Police Department on July 2, to when the state completed the background check and the license was authorized Sept. 25. A representative of the Gun Owners’ Action League, a Massachusetts firearms-rights organization, said to count from when I completed my application to when I actually had the license in my hand on Oct. 10. That’s a 100-day wait.
One could also argue that an additional 40 days should be tacked on, because that’s the time I had to wait to get an appointment with the Police Department’s firearms-licensing clerk after I completed a firearms-safety course.
No matter how it adds up, the background-check portion was more than twice the 40-day limit promised to permit applicants under state law. It is a law “without teeth,” because it offers no restitution when broken.
While at the police station on another matter last Monday, I ran into Theresa Danforth, firearms-licensing clerk for the Leominster Police Department. She told me my license to carry a firearm had arrived and would be mailed out shortly.
On Tuesday, she left a voicemail on my phone saying it was in the mail. When I received it Thursday the postmark had Wednesday’s date.
With license in hand Thursday, I drove straight to the Old Mill Gun Shop in Leominster, where I purchased a Smith & Wesson snubnosed 38 revolver with an aluminum alloy frame made in Springfield.
After I filled out my paperwork and entered my state-issued PIN, one of the store clerks checked my information with the Massachusetts Instant Record Check System and the National Instant Record Check System, both of which compile up-to-date information at the state and federal level, such as recent court orders or mental-health issues.
Store owner Jonathan Poe said my delay was far from the worst he’s seen; he knows people who had to wait more than a year.
“It all depends on what town you live in,” he said.
Poe said the system puts a lot of power in the police chief of each town, who can decide who qualifies for a concealed-weapons permit and who can only possess a rifle or shotgun. He said Leominster’s Police Chief Bob Healey provides them to whoever meets the legal requirements, while the chiefs in other towns are much more restrictive.
He said some people have moved out of Fitchburg and into Leominster for that reason.
Poe added that police departments can also hold up the process by not distributing licenses when they arrive in the mail.
Terrel Harris, director of communications for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, also said the process can be held up on the municipal level.
He said the state is also flooded with applications as part of a six-year cycle. Massachusetts firearm licenses used to be granted for life. That law changed in 1998, and everyone who had a license before then has to get their renewals in the same year. The number of years between renewals has changed several times; it currently is six years, and 2013 is one of the years that group needs to be renewed.
Harris also said state resources are tight right now, and that is making it harder to keep up with the volume of applications.
He said they processed my background check Sept. 6, which includes looking through state warrants, board of probation files, suicide files, wanted- and missing-persons lists, mental-health lists, out-of-state records, the National Instant Record Check System and a fingerprint check.
There were no issues with those checks, so my information was forwarded back to the Leominster Police Department on Sept. 20. They determined what kind of license I could receive and sent that information electronically to the Firearms Record Bureau on Sept. 25, where the license was “issued” and became official. It was printed Sept. 27 and mailed to the Leominster Police Department to distribute.
While Harris considers Sept. 25 as the date the license was issued, and that’s the issue date printed on the card, Jon Green, director of education and training for GOAL, said the real issue date is when I was given the card Oct. 10.
“Leominster has been a predominantly good town for following the statute, but they are at the mercy of the state,” said Green. “The problem with this is when you or I violate a statute, there’s a consequence. When the state violates a statute, there’s no consequence.”
Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140, Section 131 states: “The licensing authority shall, within 40 days from the date of application, either approve the application and issue the license or deny the application and notify the applicant of the reason for such denial in writing…”
“It’s criminal what they’re doing,” said Green. “Lawful citizens are being delayed literally months beyond what the state is required.”
He said that 40-day period is frequently violated and they are attempting to find solutions through the legislative process.
Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, said one of those bills would extend a grace period to avoid prosecuting gun owners with an expired license for possessing firearms. The current grace period is 90 days, and DiNatale signed onto a bill that would extend it to 160 days.
“It doesn’t really address what’s going on, but it certainly helps,” he said. “We’re prompting the public into breaking the law, frankly, and we need to address that.”
DiNatale said there’s an uptick in applications from people concerned about future restrictions who want to get a gun while they still can. He said some of the slowdown is also a result of stretched resources on both the municipal and state level for processing the background checks.
“We definitely need to look at this,” he said. DiNatale added he’d like to see the governor provide more money to the process, which could be on the state or municipal level.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said he’d like to see an increase in local aid to help speed up the background-check process.
Eldridge wants to expand background checks in Massachusetts by going more in-depth on mental-health records and tightening restrictions on private sales of firearms.
“I wouldn’t want it to delay the permit process, and if that required more funding I’d certainly support that,” he said.
Eldridge said he’s spoken to gun owners again and again in the community and doesn’t understand why they don’t lobby to increase funding for background checks, such as increased local aid that could be used to hire more clerks to process firearm applications.
“Sometimes I scratch my head when I talk to gun owners. It’s such a missed opportunity, in my experience,” he said.
When asked what the chances that the local aid would be used for that specific purpose and not other municipal issues, Eldridge responded, “That’s a great question, I don’t know the answer.”
He said there is an opportunity for gun owners in every community to advocate to local leaders to budget more money for that purpose.
“The licensing system is broken,” said Rep. Harold P. Naughton Jr., D-Clinton. He said it’s true from rural towns to inner city areas.
“Lawfully licensed citizens are really made to jump through too many hoops and wait too long,” he said. “It’s intolerable, and people shouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Naughton also said the issue is one of staffing levels in the background check process.
He rejects the label of a “gun control” advocate, saying it’s a loaded term, and said he wants to increase gun safety. However, he said the problem isn’t with the lax standards for gun permits.
“The problem is the illegal guns flowing into the state,” he said, “Guns used in crimes are by and large unlicensed. They’re illegal weapons, and the public wants those dealt with.”
He said he wants to see the second amendment protected and the licensing system become more user-friendly.
It’s been an informative five months since I started the process to become a gun owner in Massachusetts. I was surprised at how positive the response has been from the public, from meeting strangers who say, “Oh, you’re that guy out of Leominster going through the process” to messages on social media asking me if I have my FID card yet.
A lot of secret gun owners have revealed themselves to me, including small-business owners, town officials, a state representative and a schoolteacher.
Keep those questions and comments coming, and I hope this series has helped people learn what the gun laws in Massachusetts are actually like.
Follow Michael Hartwell at facebook.com/michaelhartwell or on Twitter or Tout @Sehartwell.