Christopher Davis, William P. Thompson, Wilson Lobao, Robert Capone, & Commonwealth Second Amendment, Inc. v. Grimes, Civil No. 13–10246–FDS.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtSAYLOR
Citation9 F.Supp.3d 12
Docket NumberCivil No. 13–10246–FDS.
Decision Date26 March 2014
PartiesChristopher DAVIS, William P. Thompson, Wilson Lobao, Robert Capone, and Commonwealth Second Amendment, Inc., Plaintiffs, v. Richard C. GRIMES, in his official capacity as Chief of the Weymouth Police Department, and Robert L. Champagne, in his official capacity as Chief of the Peabody Police Department, Defendants.

9 F.Supp.3d 12

Christopher DAVIS, William P. Thompson, Wilson Lobao, Robert Capone, and Commonwealth Second Amendment, Inc., Plaintiffs,
Richard C. GRIMES, in his official capacity as Chief of the Weymouth Police Department, and Robert L. Champagne, in his official capacity as Chief of the Peabody Police Department, Defendants.

Civil No. 13–10246–FDS.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts.

Signed March 26, 2014

Motions denied.

[9 F.Supp.3d 14]

David D. Jensen, David Jensen PLLC, New York, NY, Patrick M. Groulx, Polis Legal, Somerville, MA, for Plaintiffs.

Adam Simms, John J. Davis, Pierce, Davis & Perritano, LLP, Boston, MA, for Defendants.


SAYLOR, District Judge.

This is a federal constitutional challenge to the policies of two Massachusetts towns concerning firearms licenses. Plaintiffs Christopher Davis, William Thompson, Wilson Lobao, Ropert Capone, and Commonwealth Second Amendment, Inc., have brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contending that certain policies of the Weymouth

[9 F.Supp.3d 15]

and Peabody Police Departments that restrict their ability to obtain gun licenses violate the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. In particular, plaintiffs contend that defendants unconstitutionally restrict the firearm licenses of first-time applicants to target and hunting purposes and exercise their licensing authority according to arbitrary considerations. The named defendants are Richard C. Grimes and Robert L. Champagne, the police chiefs of the Weymouth and Peabody Police Departments, respectively.

Both sets of parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs do not challenge the constitutionality of the Massachusetts statutory framework regulating firearms, but rather the Weymouth and Peabody police department policies adopted under that framework. In substance, plaintiffs contend that (1) under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S.Ct. 2783, 171 L.Ed.2d 637 (2008), and McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 130 S.Ct. 3020, 177 L.Ed.2d 894 (2010), individual self-defense is the central component of the Second Amendment right to bear arms; (2) defendants here placed “target & hunting” restrictions on their firearms licenses that “virtually preclude” them from bearing arms outside the home for self-defense; and (3) those restrictions violate their constitutional rights under the Second Amendment. Defendants, in turn, defend their policies as constitutionally permissible, and argue that plaintiffs are seeking nothing less than the right “to carry a loaded, concealed gun wherever they want, whenever they want.” (Def. Mem. in Supp. at 2.).

Both sides devote substantial attention to broad constitutional issues, offering competing visions of the scope and impact of the Second Amendment on the licensing issues in this case. In doing so, both sides have ignored a more pedestrian, yet potentially critical, question: whether the police department policies at issue violate the Massachusetts statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(d), under which those policies were promulgated.

Specifically, Massachusetts law provides, in substance, that an applicant for a firearms license must show both that he is a “suitable person” and that he has a “reason” for carrying a firearm. The relevant statute, chapter 140, § 131(d), provides that one such “reason” that an applicant may establish is that “the applicant has good reason to fear injury to his person or property.” Here, however, the police chiefs of Weymouth and Peabody have adopted policies that effectively prohibit (with certain exceptions not relevant here) all first-time applicants from ever making such a showing, either at the outset or (if a restricted license was granted) for the next six years. The plaintiffs here were apparently rejected for unrestricted licenses solely because they were first-time applicants, not because they failed to show the requisite degree of fear of injury; put simply, it did not matter whether they made such a showing or not.

The policies at issue, at least at first blush, appear to violate Massachusetts law. It therefore may not be necessary to reach the Second Amendment issues; under principles of constitutional avoidance and judicial restraint, this Court should avoid reaching federal constitutional grounds where cases can be disposed of on statutory grounds. See, e.g., Sony BMG Music Entm't v. Tenenbaum, 660 F.3d 487, 511 (1st Cir.2011). Furthermore, because Massachusetts law may not be clear, the case may be appropriate for Pullman abstention or certification of a question of law to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. See Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941); Massachusetts

[9 F.Supp.3d 16]

SJC Rule 1:03. However, because the parties have not briefed those questions, and because some additional fact-finding may be required, the Court will deny the cross-motions for summary judgment without prejudice and direct the parties to file supplemental pleadings addressing the issues raised in this memorandum.

I. Background

The facts set forth below are undisputed, except as noted.

A. Massachusetts Regulatory Framework

In Massachusetts, it is a felony to carry a firearm in public without a valid license. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269, § 10.1 Licenses to carry firearms may be requested by application pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(d).2 Applications are made to a “licensing authority,” which is defined as either the applicant's local police chief or the State Police colonel. Id. §§ 121, 131(d). The statute specifies the circumstances under which the licensing authority may grant licenses, when licenses may be revoked, and what restrictions licenses may contain. Id. § 131(a)- (b). Licensing decisions are subject to judicial review in the state District Court having jurisdiction in the locality wherein the person applied for the license. Id. § 131(f).

Two types of licenses are available under the statute: Class A and Class B. Id. § 131(a)-(b). Class A licenses allow an individual to possess a large-capacity firearm and carry a concealed firearm in public. Id. § 131(a).3 Class B licenses prohibit the concealed carrying of a firearm and the carrying of a large-capacity firearm. Id. § 131(b). Licenses expire after six years and can be renewed at expiration. Id. § 131(i).

In processing a license application, the licensing authority is required to conduct a two-step inquiry to determine the applicant's eligibility. See Ruggiero v. Police Comm'r of Boston, 18 Mass.App.Ct. 256, 259, 464 N.E.2d 104 (1984). At the first step of the inquiry, the licensing authority examines whether the applicant is a “suitable person to be issued such a license.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(d). Several specific groups of applicants (for example, minors and the mentally ill) are categorically barred from firearm possession. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(d)(i)-(vii).4

At the second step of the application inquiry, the licensing authority is required to consider whether the applicant has a “reason” for carrying a firearm. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(d); see

[9 F.Supp.3d 17]

Ruggiero, 18 Mass.App.Ct. at 259, 464 N.E.2d 104. The statute does not give an exhaustive list of reasons. Instead, it merely provides that the licensing authority “may issue” the license if “it appears ... that the applicant has good reason to fear injury to his person or property, or ... any other reason, including the carrying of firearms for use in sport or target practice only.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(d).5

When an applicant seeks a license solely for self-protection, the licensing authority may require that the applicant distinguish his or her own needs from those of the general public. Ruggiero, 18 Mass.App.Ct. at 261, 464 N.E.2d 104 (finding, under earlier version of the statute, that applicant's stated purposes to avoid “spend[ing] his entire life behind locked doors [and to prevent becoming] a potential victim of crimes” did not require issuance of a license for self-defense in public).

Even when an applicant otherwise meets the requirements for license approval, the licensing authority may issue the license “subject to such restrictions relative to the possession, use or carrying of firearms as the licensing authority deems proper.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(a). Pursuant to that provision, the licensing authority may restrict a license to those uses for which the authority determines there to be an appropriate reason, even if it is not the reason proposed by the applicant. See Ruggiero, 18 Mass.App.Ct. at 257, 260, 464 N.E.2d 104 (upholding issuance of license for target and sport use where applicant requested license for self-defense purposes).

Upon judicial review, the licensing authority's determination as to whether the applicant is a “suitable person” or has an appropriate “reason” may be reversed only if the authority had “no reasonable ground for denying ... such license” and the applicant was not prohibited by law from holding a license. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(f). Such a finding is warranted only upon a showing that the refusal to grant a license was “arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.” Chief of Police of Shelburne v. Moyer, 16 Mass.App.Ct. 543, 546, 453 N.E.2d 461 (1983); Ruggiero, 18 Mass.App.Ct. at 259, 464 N.E.2d 104 (citing Moyer, 16 Mass.App.Ct. at 546, 453 N.E.2d 461); Godfrey v. Chief of Police of Wellesley, 35 Mass.App.Ct. 42, 46, 616 N.E.2d 485 (1993).

B. Target and Hunting Restrictions on Firearms Licenses

In Massachusetts, firearms licenses are recorded in the Massachusetts Instant Record Check System (“MIRCS”). (Joint SMF, ¶ 7). Any restrictions imposed on a license are also recorded in the MIRCS. ( Id.). The actual firearms license is printed from the MIRCS by the Massachusetts Firearms Records Bureau. ( Id.). It is then mailed to the local licensing authority, who issues it to the...

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