You can travel from wherever you live in the United States to wherever you want in the United States, and your freedom of speech still exists, along with your right to peaceably assemble, petition the government, be secure in your person and property, or have a jury trial if you’re arrested. You take your rights with you no matter where you go, with one very big exception. Your Second Amendment rights typically end at the state line where you live. Cross that border, and your right becomes a privilege, or maybe even a crime.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a New Hampshire man’s conviction for illegal gun possession, saying that his spending a night camping in the woods south of the border before walking down I-93 on his way to Michigan did not qualify him for the 60-day waiver of our gun-licensing requirements granted to new residents of the state.
James Paul is a legal gun owner in New Hampshire who was making his way to Michigan on foot when he was stopped by a Massachusetts State Trooper. The trooper agreed to give Paul a ride to a nearby gas station where he was going to meet a friend who was going to drive him closer to his destination. On the way, the trooper asked Paul some questions.
The trooper asked the defendant if he had any weapons, to which the defendant replied in the affirmative, pointing to his backpack, stating that “his uniform” was in it and that he worked for Homeland Security. The trooper repeated his question, and the defendant “stated that there was a firearm in the bag.” The defendant complied with the trooper’s instruction to step back. The defendant directed the trooper to where in the backpack the firearm was located. The trooper located a Ruger SR9 semiautomatic pistol in its holster, loaded with five rounds of ammunition, and a second fully loaded magazine, and secured the weapon. Other items in the bag included an active New Hampshire license to carry a firearm, a New Hampshire driver’s license, the defendant’s passport, a water purification kit, and other items indicative of someone camping.
Under Massachusetts law, it’s unlawful to have a firearm on your person or in your car without a valid Massachusetts firearms license, though new residents have a 60-day window to apply for their gun licenses. The federal Firearms Owners Protection Act would supercede state law and allow for the transportation of a firearm through Massachusetts, as long as the gun owner had his firearms stored unloaded and immediately inaccessible to him. Paul’s firearm was loaded, which may have voided any protection under FOPA, but oddly enough, Paul had his conviction for possession of a loaded firearm dismissed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
The appeals court did agree with Paul that a separate conviction, of possession of a loaded weapon, should be dismissed, because the judge failed to tell jurors that to convict on that charge, they needed to be convinced prosecutors had proved Paul knew his gun was loaded.
So, the only charge that stuck against Paul was the unlawful possession charge. Why should it be unlawful for Paul to legally possess his pistol in New Hampshire, but be sentenced to 18-months in prison for crossing the state line and possessing it in New Hampshire? Paul’s First Amendment Rights didn’t disappear when he crossed the state line. His right to a jury trial didn’t disappear because he was from New Hampshire but arrested in Massachusetts. Yet his Second Amendment right to keep arms utterly vanished as soon as he stepped across the border between the two states. Why?
The short version is that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on a case that implicates the right to keep and bear arms outside of the home, much less across state lines. We also know how hostile Massachusetts is to the Second Amendment in general. The state doesn’t treat the right to keep and bear arms as a real right at all. It’s a privilege that’s doled out by local police chiefs around the state.
From what I’ve been able to tell, Paul’s attorneys didn’t challenge his arrest or conviction on Second Amendment grounds, instead trying to argue that Paul was a resident of the state because he had camped in the state the night before he was arrested. Now that the appeals court has thrown out Paul’s conviction for possession of a loaded weapon, however, I wonder if there’s any possibility of revisiting the issue. After all, as the facts now stand, Paul was a legal gun owner traveling through Massachusetts to another state where he was legally allowed to possess a handgun. The same court of appeals noted in a case earlier this year that non-residents have the legal right to transport their firearms through the state as long as their final destination is another state. That describes Mr. Paul’s situation perfectly, yet he’s still facing an 18-month prison sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to ever take up Mr. Paul’s case, but it will be hearing a case in early December that could have provide an opening for the Court to declare that the federally protected right to keep and bear arms applies across city and state boundaries. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York City, the court will hear a challenge to a gun law that prevents legal gun owners in New York City from transporting their firearms beyond the city limits, or anywhere at all beyond a few pre-approved ranges across the city. It doesn’t have a direct implication on a case like Mr. Paul’s, but it’s entirely possible that the Court will, for the first time, discuss in some detail the right to keep and bear arms, or at least the right to transport them, outside of the home. A strong opinion in support of the petitioners could go a long way to ensuring the Second Amendment is treated as a real right in Massachusetts and across the country.