Gun rights group pulls trigger on lawsuit against Mass. AG Healey

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BOSTON — The firearm industry finally pulled the trigger on a lawsuit that gun rights groups vowed to file against Attorney General Maura Healey, who made waves in July when she announced a crackdown on so-called “copycat” assault weapons.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, accuses Healey of issuing an enforcement notice that is “unconstitutionally vague, invalid and unenforceable.”

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, which include the National Shooting Sports Foundation and four in-state firearms dealers, also appear to have brought some firepower to the courtroom in the form of attorney Michael Sullivan of the Ashcroft Law Firm, Massachusetts’ former US attorney and the former acting director of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Firearms retailers in Massachusetts cannot determine the meaning or scope of the Attorney General’s Enforcement Notice and subsequent explanations,” said Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF’s senior vice president and general counsel, in a prepared statement. “Because criminal penalties can result due to Attorney General Healey’s unilateral reinterpretation of a state statute done without administrative process or input from affected parties, her office exceeded its lawful authority and retailers were deprived of their due process protections under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

The lawsuit claims that Healey’s order was “issued without any administrative process or input from affected parties” and “radically redefines the meaning of the statutory phrase ‘copies and duplicates of assault weapons’ in a manner specifically rejected by the Massachusetts Legislature before it amended the state licensing law in 1998.”

Thursday afternoon’s filing in federal court followed a directive issued by Secretary of State William Galvin’s office ordering Healey to comply with a resident’s public records request for more information regarding the process that led to her July 20 announcement.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the claim that a “similarity” or “interchangeability” test to define what constitutes a banned “assault weapon” never existed until July 20, when Healey issued her enforcement notice. The lawsuit cites the state’s own assault weapons ban, passed in 1998, which features a list of firearm models but does not reference certain firearm parts, specifically “identical or nearly identical receivers and bolts.”

The lawsuit also notes that the state Legislature “rejected the proposed ‘copy’ definition which referred to identical or nearly identical bolt and receiver designs” and instead “incorporated” the assault weapon ban based on federal law.

“The attorney general’s regulations set forth in the enforcement notice for the first time ever adopted an entirely new interpretation of the ‘assault weapon’ definition that is not in conformity with the statutory test or the legislative history or intent,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also takes aim at Healey’s “Guns That Are Not Assault Weapons” website and lists several times in August that the list was altered.

The complaint also accuses the enforcement notice’s language of being “too vague…because it does not adequately define what it means by the phrase contained in the new regulation ‘operating system and firing mechanism of the weapon are based on or otherwise substantially similar to one of the enumerated weapons.’”

“If the Attorney General’s Enforcement Notice is broadly interpreted, it applies to all semiautomatic firearms,” the lawsuit states. “If that is a correct reading of the regulations, they violate the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution to keep and bear arms because it bans the manufacture, sale, and possession of a broad universe of rifles, pistols, and shotguns that are commonly owned and used by citizens of Massachusetts for lawful purposes including self-defense in the home.”

In a statement provided to the Boston Globe, a Healey spokesman said the new enforcement notice “is working.”

“For far too long the gun industry has taken it upon itself to interpret the state’s assault weapons ban to allow these unlawful sales, so it’s no surprise that the gun lobby has challenged our enforcement,” the statement added. “We look forward to defending in court our efforts to ensure that residents get the full protection of the law.”

Keane in his statement also noted that he looks forward to seeing how the matter plays out in court.

“Unfortunately, Attorney General Healy’s unconstitutional action has left us no other option than to seek relief from the courts,” Keane stated.

The Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, one of Healey’s loudest critics, hinted in a comment posted to its Facebook page that there could be more lawsuits filed in the future.

“Our friends at the NSSF have filed suit against AG Healey,” the post read. “We spent a lot of hours working with them on this and are glad to see the first of many suits filed.”

Read a copy of the lawsuit:

2016-09-22 Pullman Arms v Healey by Evan on Scribd