Massachusetts has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the United States, according to the most recent federal data.
But that still means nearly 250 people died by the use of a firearm in 2021, at a rate of 3.4 people per 1,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 115,000 firearms were bought and sold in Massachusetts in 2022, according to state data.
Long touted as a state with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, some still argue for more regulations, while others push for expanded gun rights. Here’s what to know.
Can you own a handgun in Massachusetts?
If you meet certain eligibility requirements, you can apply for a license to carry, and buy a handgun. Firearms can be purchased at a local licensed gun dealer. Firearm licenses are issued by your local licensing authority, which is generally the police department in the town the individual lives in.
A license to carry or firearm identification card are required to carry and own firearms in Massachusetts.
Can you own an assault weapon like an AR-15 in Massachusetts?
This is where it gets complicated. Technically the answer is yes and no, depending on when the weapon was manufactured, what it is and when you bought it.
GBH News interviewed Michaela Dunne, the deputy commissioner at the Massachusetts’ Department of Criminal Justice Information Services. The Firearms Records Bureau falls under her agency, and that is the go-to place for firearm rules and knowledge in state government.
AR-15s, Dunne said, are generally lumped into the “assault weapon” category by the public, but there’s factors that delineate them.
“I think the biggest thing for people to understand is there’s a federal assault weapons ban, and that sunsetted years ago, but Massachusetts kept that on the books,” said Dunne. She said one of the state statutes allows for anyone who had possession of an assault weapon manufactured before the federal ban to have that legally. That day is Sept. 13, 1994. Law enforcement officers are also allowed to possess certain assault weapons.
In 2016, the Attorney General’s office issued a guidance on assault weapons bans, telling the public how the office identifies weapons prohibited as “copies or duplicates” of the “enumerated banned Assault Weapons that are listed in Massachusetts law.”
Despite all of this, the state says there's no official list of weapons that are banned under state law. An FAQ for the state says that the attorney general’s office works with gun dealers to identify eligible guns.
“The Attorney General expects voluntary compliance from gun dealers and manufacturers with respect to prohibited weapons,” the website reads. “You may also examine the owner’s manual and marketing material for a gun. If a gun is labeled or marketed as ‘the same as’ or ‘similar to’ an ‘AR-15’, ‘AK-47’ or any other Enumerated Weapon, this would strongly suggest that the weapon is prohibited as a ‘copy or duplicate’ [which are prohibited under state law].”
What do people in Massachusetts have to do to get a license to carry?
To get a firearms license, you have to apply with the local police department in your city or town. You have to submit a resident firearms license application, an application fee, a Massachusetts Basic Firearms Safety Course Certificate, and a form of identification. You might also be asked to submit proof of residence. A list of organizations that are approved to hold safety courses can be found here.
Local police departments run a series of background checks. If you meet their requirements, they can issue you a license. Fees for licenses to carry and firearm identification cards are up to $100.
Residents who are 15 years and older who want to possess, carry and transport firearms and ammunition are required to have a firearms license. That allows people between 15 and 21 to only own non-large capacity, long guns, rifles and shotguns — not handguns. A lot of those guns are the type that people use for hunting. Individuals under 21 can only get an FID card. Once they turn 21, they can get a license to carry, which allows for ownership of a handgun.
If you move at any point while owning a firearm, you have to notify the authority that issued your license card, the chief of police of the town or city where you’ve moved, and the executive director of the Criminal History Systems Board, in writing by certified mail, within 30 days. Failure to reach out to all three is cause for revoking the license.
People who have committed a felony or misdemeanor with a sentence of over two years, or people who have committed a violent crime or violated narcotics or firearm laws, are disqualified from getting a license.
Can you carry a concealed weapon in Massachusetts?
Yes, you can, but you have to have a license to carry. The only places you can’t are places where they’re explicitly prohibited, like post offices, airports and courthouses.
Can you buy a gun at a yard sale in Massachusetts?
The state’s perspective is that individuals can “do personal transfers,” as long as the parties are “duly licensed.” Both people at each end of the transaction have to have a firearms license. There’s a requirement to record the transaction in the Massachusetts gun transaction portal, an electronic system that’s connected to the state firearms licensing database. The onus is on the seller to record that transaction, and the portal will look at the status of both parties’ firearms licenses; if they’re both active, it will allow the sale to proceed.
“Then you just enter in the gun demographics — like make, model serial number, that type of information. You just submit the transaction and print a couple of copies,” Dunne said.
Are there any rules about ammunition?
To possess ammunition, you need the Firearms Identification Card or the license to carry. Dunne said, generally, there’s no laws about the storage of ammunition.
How strict are Massachusetts’ gun laws compared to other states?
Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. The state is one of the only in the nation that mandates secure storage for any firearm not in the owner’s immediate control, and requires safety training for anyone looking to obtain a firearms license for the first time. Massachusetts also has a “red flag” law, passed in 2018, that allows for the temporary suspension of gun owners’ licenses if a judge finds they pose a risk to their own or others’ safety. Family or household members, or law enforcement, can request such emergency risk protection orders.
California, which advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety say has the strongest gun laws in the nation, has some laws that Massachusetts lacks. For example, California generally imposes a waiting period between the purchase of a gun and when the new owner can take it home. The intention of this policy is to allow those with possible suicidal or violent intentions to wait before obtaining a gun. Massachusetts has no such law.
How many firearms deaths are there in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest rate of deaths due to firearms, according to federal data. Out of every 100,000 people, 3.4 died due to firearms in Massachusetts in 2021. In contrast, in Mississippi — where the rate is the highest — 33.9 died for every 100,000 people.
Are there efforts to make Massachusetts’ gun laws stricter?
Yes. The Massachusetts House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a gun reform bill in October, over the opposition of some gun owners. The bill includes provisions that would: bar people from carrying firearms in schools, polling places and government buildings; require registration of “ghost guns” with the state — untraceable, privately made firearms, most often assembled with a kit or 3D printer; and expand who can petition for extreme risk protection orders under the “red flag” law to include people like health care providers and employers.
Now, the state Senate is slated to devise its own gun bill. The two chambers will need to agree upon one bill in order to give it to the governor.
In the wake of the October mass shootings in Lewiston, Maine, Massachusetts’ Senate President Karen Spilka issued a statement vowing to pass a bill and get it to Gov. Maura Healey before the legislative session ends July 31, 2024.