Letting Unsecured Gun Get Stolen Is Enough To Lose License To Carry, Massachusetts Court Rules – Even After 50 Years of Incident-Free Gun Ownership

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2019/04/19/letting-unsecured-gun-get-stolen-is-enough-to-lose-license-to-carry-massachusetts-court-rules-even-after-50-years-of-incident-free-gun-ownership/

A state appeals court has upheld the latitude of local police chiefs to decide who can and can’t carry a handgun in Massachusetts, overturning two lower-court judges who found that a police chief in Taunton acted unreasonably when he revoked a license to carry from a man whose gun was stolen from his car.

Paul Caras, then 76, picked up his drug-addicted grandson one day in January 2017 to take him to Rhode Island. On the way, he made a brief stop at his home, leaving his grandson in the car with Caras’s Sig Sauer P232 handgun in the unlocked glove compartment. He had the gun in the car because he had made several trips to the bank that day.

After he dropped his grandson off, Caras realized the gun was missing. He figured his grandson had taken it and might pawn it to get money to buy drugs, so he looked for him, and when he couldn’t find him he called police in East Providence (where he had left him) and in Taunton (where he lives).

Later that day police in Rhode Island found the grandson, who still had the gun, and arrested him.

The next day, a police captain in Taunton, acting under the authority of the city’s police chief, revoked Caras’s license to carry, saying he had created a public safety risk by enabling his grandson steal the gun.

Caras appealed in district court. His lawyer said that Caras had owned a gun legally and responsibly since at least 1967.

“Until the occurrence of that incident, Mr. Caras had an unblemished, approximately fifty-year history of holding a Massachusetts license to carry firearms. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Mr. Caras had any history of violent, erratic, abusive, anti-social or threatening behavior of any type towards any person or had ever mishandled or used a firearm in any way in an unsafe manner so as to create a danger to any person or the public safety generally,” Caras’s lawyer argued in subsequent court papers.

A district court judge sided with the gun owner, saying police acted unreasonably by revoking Caras’s license. The city appealed to Superior Court, where a judge upheld the district court’s decision.

But the Massachusetts Appeals Court disagreed.

“Caras’s actions provided a reasonable basis for the chief’s decision. Caras failed to secure his handgun in his vehicle, which enabled his grandson to steal it. Three police departments had to take immediate action to find and to apprehend the grandson, whose possession of the firearm not only raised its own public safety concerns, but also created a risk of the weapon falling into more dangerous hands,” the appeals court ruled Friday. “… These facts do not permit the conclusion that the chief’s revocation decision was arbitrary or capricious or that no reasonable ground supported it.”

The appeals court did not find that police in Taunton had to revoke Caras’s license, but that police had enough evidence to support a judgement call to revoke it, and that judges don’t have the authority to substitute their own judgment in place of a police chief’s if the chief (or his designee) based his decision on reasonable evidence.

“The chief, in his discretion, could have taken the same view of the circumstances as the District Court judge and could have chosen not to revoke Caras’s license. But the District Court judge’s belief that the chief should have made a different decision is not a legally permissible basis for overturning the chief’s unsuitability determination,” the appeals court ruled. “The District Court judge’s role is to ensure that the licensing authority’s decision is based on objective evidence reasonably suggesting that the individual would pose a risk to public safety if allowed to carry a firearm, and is not otherwise arbitrary or capricious.”

Massachusetts has among the most restrictive gun laws in the United States, according to WideOpenSpaces.com, a pro-gun-rights group that ranks states by gun-friendliness.

State law in Massachusetts makes the local police chief or his designee the licensing authority for that city or town for firearms. It also states (in Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 140, Section 131, Paragraph D):

The licensing authority may deny the application or renewal of a license to carry, or suspend or revoke a license issued under this section if, in a reasonable exercise of discretion, the licensing authority determines that the applicant or licensee is unsuitable to be issued or to continue to hold a license to carry. A determination of unsuitability shall be based on: (i) reliable and credible information that the applicant or licensee has exhibited or engaged in behavior that suggests that, if issued a license, the applicant or licensee may create a risk to public safety; or (ii) existing factors that suggest that, if issued a license, the applicant or licensee may create a risk to public safety.

The same statute states, a little further (in Paragraph F):

A license issued under this section shall be revoked or suspended by the licensing authority, or his designee, upon the occurrence of any event that would have disqualified the holder from being issued such license or from having such license renewed. A license may be revoked or suspended by the licensing authority if it appears that the holder is no longer a suitable person to possess such license.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2013 (in Chardin vs. Police Commissioner of Boston) that the “suitable person” standard “gives the licensing authority … broad discretion in making a licensing decision.”

In the Taunton case, the appeals court praised Caras for quickly reporting the missing gun to the police, but said that action alone doesn’t make revoking his license unreasonable.

“We agree with the District Court judge that Caras’s prompt reporting of the theft to the police was laudable and may have prevented disastrous consequences that leaving the gun unattended and unsecured otherwise might have caused,” the appeals court said. … “Notwithstanding Caras’s laudable behavior after he discovered that his grandson had stolen his gun, the chief could reasonably determine from this incident that Caras’s continued holding of a license to carry might endanger the public.”

The copious testimony in district court about Caras’s good character also doesn’t win the day for him, the court said.

“None of the additional evidence before the District Court judge materially undermined the chief’s conclusion. The chief’s decision should not have been disturbed,” the appeals court ruled.

Caras was not prosecuted in the theft of his gun, but the appeals court said he might have been, under a portion of state law that requires gun owners to keep firearms “secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device.”

The case was decided by Kenneth V. Desmond Jr., Gregory I. Massing, and Edward McDonough, three of the 25 justices of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Massing was appointed by former governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, while Desmond and McDonough were appointed by the current governor, Charlie Baker, a Republican.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court case is called Chief of Police of Taunton vs. Paul N. Caras. It was decided Friday, April 19.

Lawyers for the city and the gun owner could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. The gun owner may appeal the ruling to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.