LEGISLATURE WEIGHING OPTIONS AFTER SJC STRIKES DOWN STUN GUN BAN
By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 17, 2018.....The possession of stun guns and tasers is protected by the Second Amendment, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded on Tuesday, "reluctantly" scrapping the state law banning civilians from possessing those weapons.
The decision written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants was a reversal from an earlier SJC ruling upholding the conviction of Jaime Caetano for possession of a stun gun. The earlier SJC decision was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as Justice Samuel Alito in March 2016 concluded that it "does a grave disservice to vulnerable individuals like Caetano who must defend themselves because the State will not."
Tuesday's ruling brings the Supreme Judicial Court's view of non-fatal weapons like stun guns and tasers more in line with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has expanded the rights of gun owners around the country in recent years. The potential for misuse of stun guns motivated lawmakers to ban them in 1986, according to the SJC, but in 2004 the Legislature permitted the weapons for law enforcement purposes.
The SJC "carefully considered" whether it could narrow the state statute to bring it in line with the U.S. Constitution without veering into lawmaking that is the Legislature's responsibility, but wrote "we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it cannot be saved."
The decision leaves some room for state lawmakers to step in and regulate electronic weapons, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he intends to file legislation by mid-June.
"Speaker DeLeo is aware of the decision. We are currently reviewing the decision and legislative options. The Speaker intends to file legislation within 60 days," spokeswoman Whitney Ferguson said in a statement.
Senate President Harriette Chandler said her office was also reviewing the decision. "We will be looking into options for amending the statute in accordance with the court's opinion," Chandler said in a statement.
The public safety committee on Friday approved a redrafted bill (S 1283) filed by Sen. William Brownsberger that would regulate stun guns and tasers – requiring people to be over the age of 18 and to have a firearms license to possess those weapons. The committee also recommended for study – usually a dead-end for legislation – three other bills (H 1249, H 3264, H 2492) addressing the issue.
"We will be sure to do our due diligence and are looking into how to address any concerns created by the Supreme Judicial Court's decision," Rep. Hank Naughton, House chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said in a statement. "We will be exploring all options that are available to us."
Gants's decision sketched out the type of restrictions that do not run afoul of the Second Amendment, which prohibits laws that infringe on the "right of the people to keep and bear Arms."
The state requires people to be licensed to possess a firearm and it prevents those convicted of violent crimes, those who have been committed to an institution for substance abuse, and those under the age of 15, among others, from obtaining a firearm identification card, Gants noted.
"If the Legislature had made it a crime only for this class of 'prohibited persons' to possess a stun gun (or a comparable class), there could be no doubt that such a statute would be constitutional and that it would preserve much of what the Legislature intended through its broader ban," Gants wrote.
Tuesday's case originated with a Nov. 5, 2015 traffic stop by the Revere Police where officers allegedly discovered a stun gun in Jorge Ramirez's pocket. Police allegedly also found a firearm in the backseat of the car, according to the SJC, and Ramirez has also been charged with carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a loaded firearm without a license, and possession of a firearm without a firearm identification card.
Saying that it could give lawmakers time to potentially address the issue, the SJC also delayed entry of the judgement until 60 days after the rescript – which generally occurs a few weeks after the opinion has been published, according to the court.
The ruling also listed a variety of crimes that have been aided by stun guns. In one instance, a stun gun was used to incapacitate someone later strangled to death; in another, the device was used to force victims into "unwanted sexual intercourse;" and the weapon has been used to "punish and control victims of domestic violence."
"Although less lethal than a handgun, stun guns can be used to conceal the torture and abuse of another person because they 'can deliver repeated or prolonged shocks without leaving marks,'" Gants wrote, quoting from the Caetano decision.
The statute struck down by Tuesday's decision punishes those who violate it with fines of up to $500 to $1,000 and imprisonment for between 6 months to 2.5 years.
State leaders – including DeLeo, a Democrat, and Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican – have touted the state's system for regulating guns as a model for the rest of the nation. Massachusetts lawmakers last passed a major gun law in 2014. The mass murder by a gunman at a high school in Parkland, Florida in February, has elevated the issue once again for activists and policymakers around the country.
On Friday, those activists mobilizing for more gun restrictions won a minor victory when the Public Safety Committee gave a favorable report to a bill (H 3610) that would allow family members, roommates and law enforcement to petition the courts to bar dangerous individuals from accessing guns.
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