Gun ownership spiked in Walpole in 2012

By David Riley and Veronica Hamlett | Wicked Local | February 11, 2013

More of your neighbors may be packing heat than just four years ago.

Police chiefs have issued about 57,000 more of the most common and permissive type of gun license available in Massachusetts since 2008, according to figures kept by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

That’s a nearly 27 percent increase in Class A licenses to own a handgun, rifle or shotgun – the only type of permit that allows its recipient to carry a concealed handgun.

This makes Massachusetts part of a national trend of an increase in firearms permits, said James Alan Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I think a lot of gun purchasers are thinking that there might be a shutdown, a crackdown on guns,” Fox said.

Walpole saw a 72 percent increase in licenses to carry last year, according to Police Chief Richard Stillman, bringing the total number of active Class A licenses up to 2,100.

Stillman also thinks gun owners fear a future clamp on gun ownership, but, personally, he doesn’t think that’ll happen.

“From my point of view, it’s completely ridiculous,” he said. “People applying here are good candidates. They’d get their license now or 10 years from now.”

For the last few years, Bay State gun shop owners have described sales as brisk, with customers nervous that President Barack Obama would seek to curtail gun rights or increasingly interested in self-protection – especially women.

“I think it’s a lot of everything, but certainly in the past six months to a year, the two major issues are self defense and simply just exercising their civil right,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League. “I think people are concerned if they don’t exercise and protect it, that it’s going to go away.”

Both concerns may have intensified after the Newtown, Conn., Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 children and six adults in December. The massacre has stoked renewed debate about gun control in the U.S., and state leaders also are weighing whether and how to tighten Massachusetts firearms laws, already among the strictest in the nation.

Whatever policymakers decide could affect holders of more than 271,000 Class A gun licenses recorded as active in Massachusetts last year, state records show.

Stillman prefers to see new laws regarding mental health checks for license applicants.

“Right now when I do a background check I can get a complete history, but the only mental health issues I can get are if they were committed to a state institution, not a private institution,” he said. “Massachusetts also doesn’t share state mental health records with other states. Those are two big things that need to be fixed.”

Only a dozen towns saw declines in Class A licenses since 2008. The rise in other communities ranged from upticks of less than 10 percent in towns such as Wareham to a more than doubling of licenses in cities such as Somerville and Quincy.

The spike was not limited to any particular part of the state. Class A licenses surged 48.4 percent in Manchester on the North Shore, 60.6 percent in Falmouth on Cape Cod, 47.1 percent in Randolph on the South Shore and 43.3 percent in Wellesley, west of Boston.

Steep increases took place in cities, suburbs and more rural towns alike.

John Rosenthal of Newton-based Stop Handgun Violence suggested another reason for the uptick: That gun shops and firearms safety trainers have been urging people to get Class A licenses ever since state rules for firearms permitting changed in 1998.

“They are disingenuously steering anybody that comes to these safety training courses to get the maximum allowed license,” he said.

Rosenthal, who enjoys skeet shooting, said he has a firearms identification (FID) card that allows him to own a shotgun and has no need for a Class A license. He chalked up concerns about a major crackdown on firearms to “gun industry fear-mongering.”

Class A licenses are not the only type of permit on the rise.

Also active were 15,781 restricted FID cards that allow recipients only to carry Mace or pepper spray, up 30.4 percent from 2008.

There also were 36,461 FID cards active in the state last year, allowing their owners only to have rifles or shotguns. That figure is only a 1-percent increase from four years ago.

Class B licenses, which allow owners to possess and carry a handgun with 10 or fewer rounds or a shotgun with five or fewer shells, were down 9.5 percent since 2008. Only 4,328 were active last year.

Gov. Deval Patrick and state Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, have proposed new gun control measures after the Newtown shooting.

Patrick’s bill would require courts to transmit certain mental health records to the state criminal justice information system so the federal government could include the information in a national registry. It also would require background checks at gun shows, limit access to high-powered rounds of ammunition, restrict gun purchasers to one firearm per month and create four new types of gun crimes.

Linsky’s legislation shares the one-gun-a-month restriction. Among other things, it also would require that gun owners buy insurance for possession of a firearm and that gun license applicants waive privacy restrictions on their mental health records.

MetroWest Daily News reporter Brad Petrishen contributed to this story.

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