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Will Massachusetts Town Pull The Trigger On A Gun Store Ban?

AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File

When a sign for a gun store quietly appeared in the storefront of a building in Newton, Massachusetts’ business district earlier this year, many residents flipped out; not because they wouldn’t have to drive as far to try to find ammunition but because someone actually had the temerity to try to open up a (gasp!) gun store in their peaceful, Boston suburb.

Since then the controversy over Newton Firearms has spilled over into other suburbs, and officials in Newton have managed to block the gun shop from opening; first demanding it apply for a work permit to rehabilitate the building (a permit that was denied), and more recently changing the zoning laws of the city to prevent any gun store from opening up inside most of the city limits.

That didn’t go far enough for some folks though, so on Monday the Newtown Town Council will be holding a public hearing on a proposal to impose an outright ban on gun stores in the city. While gun owners will certainly show up, they’ll also likely be outnumbered by foes of firearm retailers. A previous hearing on the zoning changes drew hundreds of people to an online stream, but supporters of the gun shop only made up about one-third of the speakers.

So, for the moment the debate is between those who want to try to restrict gun stores as much as they think is legally allowable, and those who want to test the limits of current law by going full-ban.

Laura Towvim, a local gun control advocate who helped organize opposition to the Newtonvillestore, said the zoning rules approved by the City Council are incredibly strong and legally defensible.

“A zoning ordinance is the most effective way to stop gun stores from coming here,” Towvim said in a phone interview. “Going the next step and enacting a ban seems like an unnecessary risk for our city, and I believe it creates risks for the country.”

But a group of city councilors and residents have said Newton should go further, and have called for an outright ban on firearms businesses.

Councilor Emily Norton said a vast majority of Newton residents who have contacted her would support an outright ban on gun stores.

“I want to take a firm stand against access to guns,” Norton said. “I don’t think they need another option in Newton, people don’t want it near them. I think we should respect that, and try to make it happen.”

The Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on the issue of restrictions on gun stores. In 2018 the Court declined to accept a challenge to Alameda County, California’s ordinance that in essence blocked any new gun store from opening. The Ninth Circuit upheld that ordinance, declaring that there was no Second Amendment right to sell guns and that individual gun owners still had other means to acquire a firearm even if no new stores were allowed to open for business.

Four years earlier, however, a federal judge in Chicago ruled that the city’s ban on gun stores was, in fact, a violation of the Second Amendment. Rather than risk a precedent setting loss, the city changed its zoning laws to theoretically allow for a gun store to open, though in reality the zoning restrictions covered more than 98% of usable land in the city. That law was challenged as well, and the city lost again, but the city has thrown up new barriers in the form of special use permits and other red-tape regulations that have prevented any gun stores from establishing themselves inside the Chicago city limits.

One way or another, it looks like Newton, Massachusetts is going to give Second Amendment advocates another crack at attracting the Supreme Court’s interest in this issue. The question is whether the city will claim (however implausibly) that their zoning laws aren’t designed to make it impossible for a gun store to operate in town or if they’ll go for broke and try to defend an outright ban on federally licensed firearms retailers.

From a legal perspective, a total ban would be a cleaner case, so I’m actually kind of rooting for the gun control Puritans in Massachusetts to win their fight against their more pragmatic anti-gun allies. Take that “firm stand against access to guns” in a country that guarantees the right to keep and bear them, please. Send a legal “shot heard ’round the world” to the dastardly “gun lobby” by imposing a complete and total ban on gun sales in Newton. Go for broke, just don’t be surprised when the courts declare that ban to be null and void.

Jul 31, 2021 8:30 AM ET