News & Events

SJC upholds trigger locks in Massachusetts

By John R. Ellement, Globe Staff

In a victory for law enforcement and gun control advocates, the state’s high court today said state law requiring gun owners to use trigger locks on their weapons inside their homes passes constitutional muster.

In a case that had drawn attention from the Gun Owners Action League and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Supreme Judicial Court said that the Second Amendment does not override the state’s interest in mandating safe storage of firearms.

"We conclude that the legal obligation safely to secure firearms in [state law] is not unconstitutional, that the motion to dismiss the count charging its violation was allowed in error, and that the defendant may face prosecution on this count,” Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the unanimous court.

The SJC, in a companion case involving the prosecution of a New Bedford man on illegal gun possession charges, also said the Second Amendment does not apply to Massachusetts when the issue is illegal gun possession.

Both cases involved the SJC’s view of a landmark 2008 ruling by the US Supreme Court, known as Heller. The US Supreme Court struck down a District of Columbia law that barred residents from keeping a firearm in their homes unless it was disassembled or with a trigger lock.

The nation’s highest court said that the District’s law violated the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment because it prevented homeowners from using the firearms in self-defense.

Gants wrote today in the case of Richard Runyan – a Billerica man facing prosecution for keeping a rifle under his bed without a trigger lock – that a licensed gun owner can keep locks off their firearm when they are at home.

Gants wrote that Massachusetts law requires trigger locks when the gun owner is not at home, and therefore avoids the self-defense concern raised by Justice Antonin Scalia in the Heller case.

In the second case, involving Nathaniel Depina, the SJC rejected his request that his illegal gun possession conviction should be overturned because it is part of a regulatory scheme that violates the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Gants wrote that under current law, the Second Amendment does not apply in cases like Runyan’s or DePina’s.

"The defendant’s (DePina) argument rests on the assumption that the protection of the Second Amendment applies to the States as a matter of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Gants wrote in the DePina case.

"We conclude that, based on current Federal law, the Second Amendment does not apply to the States, either through the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process or otherwise,” Gants wrote.

The Heller case has generated a second wave of litigation and raised legal questions most Americans have long believed were settled law, such as the belief that constitutional amendments, especially those in the Bill of Rights, already apply to every state.

But, the Heller ruling was crafted to apply only to "federal enclaves" like the District of Columbia, and lawyers and judges are still trying to clarify whether, and how, the Second Amendent applies to states.

When today’s cases were argued before the SJC last fall, this question of Heller and the reach of the Second Amendment was discussed by the justices.