By Christian M. Wade
More than 100,000 new gun licenses were issued to Massachusetts residents over the past five years, even as the state tightened gun control laws.
Statewide, there were 397,548 active Class A firearms licenses — which allow the holder to own rifles, shotguns or handguns — as of Jan. 22, according to data obtained from the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services.
That’s an increase of 135,432, or 51 percent, from five years ago.
The Class A license, the most popular and expansive gun permit available, also allows the holder to carry a concealed handgun.
In addition, there are 32,042 active Firearms Identification Cards, which permit ownership of rifles and shotguns, and the purchase of ammunition. That’s down from 34,243 two years ago.
Class B licenses, which allow the purchase of all weapons allowed under the Class A license except for large-capacity handguns, are being phased out as part of a package of gun control measures approved in 2014. But there are still 2,017 Class B permits.
Exactly what is driving more Massachusetts residents to arm themselves isn’t clear.
Gun enthusiasts attribute the rise to fears that officials might impose further restrictions on gun ownership in the wake of high-profile mass shootings.
“There’s always a fear of government overregulation,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. “The problem is that more laws don’t necessarily mean good laws.”
Where the guns are
Wallace said the number of gun permits is down from a high of more than 1.5 million in the mid-1990s. He said the number of permits plummeted when the state enacted a sweeping package of gun control measures in 1998 that included a ban on assault weapons.
“It dropped substantially after those laws were passed because it became so difficult,” he said. “At one point, the state was down to about 230,000 permits.”
Gun licenses are most popular on a per-capita basis in rural communities but affluent suburban communities also have seen a steady rise in permitting, according to the state’s data.
Locally, the largest number of active Class A licenses per capita is in Rowley, where there are 635 active permits, or 102 for every 1,000 residents.
Middleton was close behind with 85 permits per 1,000 residents. Gloucester has 74 per 1,000, Haverhill, 60 per 1,000, and Peabody has 52 Class A permits per 1,000 residents, according to the state data.
Lawrence, the most populous city in the region, has the lowest number of Class A permits per capita, at 19 per 1,000 residents.
Wallace said other factors may be behind the rise in gun permits, including a growing interest among women and young adults taking up shooting sports or arming themselves for protection.
“The fastest-growing demographic of gun owners is women, and we’re seeing that everywhere in training and gun safety programs,” he said.
Low rate of gun deaths
Gun control advocates say the data show the state’s gun laws — among the toughest in the country — aren’t depriving people of their right to bear arms.
They point to the fact that Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the nation as evidence that a get-tough approach is working.
“What that demonstrates is that properly crafted gun laws can actually work,” said Janet Goldberg of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “They’re designed to let law-abiding citizens have guns but keep guns out of the wrong hands.”
In 2014, lawmakers gave police chiefs the right to go to court to deny Firearms Identification Cards to buy rifles or shotguns to people whom they beleive are unsuitable. The law also allows real-time background checks for private gun sales and calls for stiffened penalties for gun-based crimes.
Last year, Attorney General Maura Healey unilaterally expanded the state’s 30-year ban on assault weapons to include “copycat” weapons that look like or can be modified to mimic assault weapons. More than 10,000 such weapons were sold in the state in 2016, she said.
Her decision drew a legal challenge from the state chapter of the NRA, which argues that the “copycat” ban and a 1998 law banning rifles such as the AR-15 and AK-47 are a “vague and unconstitutional violation” of gun ownership rights. The outcome of the case is pending.
More recently, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a ban on bump fire stocks, which went into effect Thursday, in response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October when a gunman used the accessories on rifles to kill 59 people and wound more than 500 at an outdoor music festival.
A recent Northeastern University study found that Massachusetts’ tough gun laws aren’t impeding gun ownership.
The study found that giving police chiefs more discretion to issue licenses hasn’t reduced the number of permits, and 97 percent of those who want guns are still able to get them.
John Rosenthal, executive director of the nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence, said the state’s gun control laws are an example of how it should work.
“Gun laws that make it harder for kids, criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to access firearms reduce preventable gun injuries and death without inconveniencing law-abiding gun owners,” he said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.