Three Massachusetts cities are now facing a federal lawsuit over refusals to process gun license applications while a COVID-19 state of emergency is in place. The state’s Gun Owners Action League says state law makes it clear that localities have no more than 40 days to process applications for gun licenses, which are required to both own and carry a firearm in Massachusetts, but several police departments have had licenses in limbo since March.
“During this COVID era when folks need to be cautious, we are able to get our favorite coffee, burger, and pizza, but these local authorities can’t figure out how to safely fingerprint people,” said Jim Wallace, Executive Director of GOAL. “It is bad enough that we have to get permission from our state government to exercise our civil rights, but now they are telling us the system can’t work during a health crisis when citizens may need it the most.”
Wallace notes that the city of Lowell was previously sued by the organization, but after the city was served with the lawsuit is miraculously managed to figure out a way to resume processing applications from would-be gun owners. Unfortunately, in Cambridge, Weymouth, and Stoughton, the application process remains on hold.
Brandon Alves submitted his application to the Stoughton Police Department back in February, according to the new suit, but heard nothing back from the department for months. In May Alves reached out to the department himself and was told that his application was delayed because of the coronavirus. Alves called in June, July, August, and September only to repeatedly be put off by authorities.
The other two named plaintiffs in the lawsuit haven’t been waiting as long as Alves to exercise their Second Amendment rights, but both Nicholas Bernat and Nathan Pierce have still been twiddling their thumbs since August and late July waiting for police in Wemouth and Cambridge to approve their applications. Bernat dropped off his application on August 25th, but the Weymouth PD website says applications are only being accepted by appointment. When Bernat called to set up an appointment on August 28th, he was told to come in to get fingerprinted on February 19th, 2021.
Pierce, meanwhile, can’t submit his application at all because the Cambridge police are refusing to fingerprint applicants, which is required before a license can be issued. He and others who wish to legally own a firearm in the city have no way of doing so, and have no idea when police will resume accepting applications again.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock, a Reagan appointee who’s served on the bench since 1986. It was Woodlock who earlier this year issued an injunction blocking Gov. Charlie Baker’s order to shut down gun stores, declaring that even in a state of emergency our individual rights don’t disappear.
“We don’t surrender our constitutional rights. These plaintiffs have constitutional rights that deserve respect and vindication, and it becomes necessary for a court to do that rather than the executive when the executive declines,” the judge said.
He added: “I don’t have anything like a substantial fit between the goals of the emergency declared by the commonwealth and the burdening of the constitutional rights.”
Now, Woodlock’s opinion in the challenge to gun store closures doesn’t automatically mean he’s going to side with the plaintiffs in this new suit, but the fact that he specifically said that we don’t surrender our constitutional rights during a state of emergency is a very good sign. After all, the three individuals who are challenging their local police departments are being completely deprived of their right to keep and bear arms, which is arguably a bigger burden on their rights than not being able to operate or patronize a gun store in the state.
There’s a chance that these three cities will follow Lowell’s lead and resume processing gun license applications without the need for a federal judge to get involved. In my opinion, that would be the wiser course of action for the police chiefs in Weymouth, Cambridge, and Stoughton, but given the anti-gun attitudes from far too many politicians and political appointees in the state, it’s quite possible one or more of the chiefs named in the new federal lawsuit will choose to argue in court that a right delayed does not amount to a right denied.