Looking Down the Sights: An Investigation into Firearms in Brookline
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There was a spent bullet casing on the floor in the bathroom. Gunfire could be heard from everywhere in the building. The air smelled faintly of gunpowder. This was the Mass Firearms School in Holliston, MA, about a forty-five minute drive from Brookline.
The journey to own a firearm in Brookline begins with a four-hour Basic Firearms Safety Course prerequisite for applying for a Firearms Identification Card (FID) in Massachusetts, the most basic type of firearm license. The age limit for an unrestricted FID is 18, or 15 with parental permission. All applicants, including those over 18, must take the course and present their certificate of completion of the course to the licensing authority in their town.
The course covers laws and regulations, basic gun safety, parts of the gun, gun storage and shooting technique. Mass Firearms includes a range session with a pistol and revolver in their course, although it is not required by law that students fire a weapon during the class.
“Safety really is first and foremost,” said one of the instructors at Mass Firearms who teaches the course, who asked not to be identified.
The rules for safely handling a gun are relatively simple: always keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction, such as into a bucket of sand or towards the wall, where no damage would occur if it were to accidentally go off. Leave the firearm unloaded until you are ready to shoot. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. Always know what your target is and what’s behind it.
“If you follow these rules most of the time, you won’t be responsible for any accidents,” the instructor said.
In a later interview, the instructor said that in theory he would turn people away from his class if they were not behaving safely and that he has come close to doing so but never has.
“I have a hard time withholding the certificate because there’s a fine line between encouraging safety and cutting someone off before they’ve even had a chance to get started,” he said.
The instructor said that he wants to educate people to change the negative stereotypes some have towards guns.
“I wish that more people understood and were open to the concept of a firearm as a tool and an inanimate object,” he said. “They can’t separate the tool from the negative use of the tool, which really could apply to anything.”
The instructor said people who use guns are responsible and that “firearms regulations are unnecessary” because those who had hurt people with firearms would have done so anyway regardless of the law.
“How do you prevent someone who’s never done anything wrong from going out and getting a gun and murdering people?” he said. “You can’t.”
Timothy Konetzny, an assistant shooting instructor at Mass Firearms, also said he did not believe there should be any regulations on gun ownership.
“If you’re a fully capable person, no, I don’t feel there’s any limits because there’s no limits on anything else,” Konetzny said. “If I have enough money, I can buy a Lamborghini, but just because it can go 200 miles doesn’t mean I can legally do that.”
George Jurdi, operations manager at Mass Firearms, said he did not have reservations about allowing people to own guns and that he had not thought about whether people with criminal records or histories of mental illness should be allowed to possess firearms.
“I haven’t looked at the research. I haven’t done any research myself. I’m sure there’s a line somewhere, but I don’t know where it is,” Jurdi said.
What type of firearm licenses exist in Massachusetts?
The process of licensing civilians to carry firearms has several distinct legal classes in Massachusetts. Sergeant Christopher Mallin serves as the Firearms Licensing Officer for the Brookline Police Department, which is responsible for dispensing Massachusetts licenses to Brookline residents who want them.
People who want a license must apply to the licensing authority in the town they live in, and once they have the license it is valid in all of Massachusetts. But within a given town, the police department may have its own policies as to how it gives out licenses.
There are two types of FIDs; restricted, which pertain only to mace, and unrestricted. An unrestricted FID allows the bearer to posses a non-large capacity rifle or shotgun.
Mallin said that few minors have FIDs.
“It’s not as big of an issue in Brookline,” he said.
The age limit for a License to Carry (LTC) is 21 years old. A restricted LTC allows the bearer to carry a firearm outside their home only for the purposes of target shooting, hunting, sporting or employment or transportation for those purposes. An unrestricted LTC allows the bearer to carry a firearm with them wherever they are.
However, there are some places where bearers of the unrestricted LTC may not carry firearms, such as public schools, where it is illegal to carry a firearm unless you are a law enforcement official or have approval from the school to do so.
The first step to applying for a license is taking the Basic Firearm Safety Course and presenting the certificate to Mallin. No license is required to take a class with a state certified instructor, such as the Basic Firearms Safety Course, but an FID is necessary to shoot alone at the range without an instructor. Mass Firearms offers a youth class for children as young as 9 years old. Mallin said there are very few gun clubs in the Brookline area.
“The farther you get outside the city the more densely you find them,” he said.
Mallin said that any Brookline applicant who would like an FID or an LTC must fill out an application and meet with him to go over it. For applicants under 18, he meets with their parents to confirm their consent. He takes a photo of the applicant and takes their fingerprints.
Those applying for an LTC must also bring two letters of reference, a personal letter to Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary explaining who they are and why they want an LTC, and pass a live fire test.
After the meeting with the individual, Mallin runs a background check on their application. The fingerprints are sent to the state police, who compare them with the FBI fingerprint database. Convicted felons, those who have been sentenced to a misdemeanor with a possible prison sentence of two or more years (such as assault and battery or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol) and those who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor cannot be issued licenses.
The application and background check are both required by law in Massachusetts, but the live fire test is Brookline policy and is not required by law, according to the Gun Owner’s Action League.
Mallin also checks whether the applicant has been listed as a suicide threat or have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts has 2.6 to 8.2 gun deaths per 100,000 residents on average. The national average is 10.2 per 100,000 Americans.
The above heat map details firearm mortality rates in the United States in 2014, per 100,000 total residents. Graphic by Leon Yang. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Can a teenager have a gun?
Jurdi said many teenagers come into Mass Firearms.
“Every day I see teenagers come here to take classes and shoot,” Jurdi said.
Mallin said that some teens like to hunt or skeet shoot, which is why they apply for a license. He estimates that around two or three minors in Brookline have unrestricted FIDs.
“They’re not interested in handguns; they just do it as a sport,” Mallin said.
The age limit to apply for an FID is 15 years old. There is no age limit for firearm classes.
The instructor at Mass Firearms said that he feels that gun safety should be taught to everyone, including children. He said he plans to start teaching his older son, 9, to shoot this year, and that he had been waiting for his son to be mature enough to learn.
“I know people who take their kids to the range when they’re five and there are no problems,” he said.
Can people carry guns in Brookline?
According to a packet handed out at the beginning of the class, Mass Firearms considers Brookline a “red town,” meaning that the police are reluctant to give unrestricted LTCs. The instructor urged students to apply for unrestricted LTCs, and gave out a list of legally acceptable reasons to use when asking for one. These included living or working in a high-crime area, being a business owner and already having been the victim of a crime, among others.
According to O’Leary, most red towns, including Brookline, are in urban areas where hunting is not as popular as it is in rural areas.
“The majority of people that we talk to, they really don’t want to carry it all the time but they want it to go target shooting or hunting,” O’Leary said.
Mallin also cited fears about terrorism and worries about increases in firearms restrictions after well-publicized mass shootings such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT as potential sources for the increase.
“When there are high profile incidents, recently, the Paris shootings, San Bernardino, we will have people come in and express that the reason they’re seeking it is because they have a heightened sense of concern based upon some of the things they’re seeing,” Mallin said.
O’Leary said he does not believe that national restrictions on firearm licensing will tighten soon.
“I don’t think you’ll see any strengthening of the gun laws without a big battle. I look at Newtown, where all those little kids got killed, and they couldn’t even pass some tightening of firearms laws, based on the fact that 20-something people overall were killed in a school,” O’Leary said. “If that doesn’t wake people up, I don’t think there’s much resolve to strengthen the gun laws nationwide.”
Jurdi said he believes firearms are important for personal protection.
“I think they can be a great tool,” Jurdi said. “I think they’re essential for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and feel safe and not depend on other agencies, government agencies, police officers.”
What weapons training do Brookline police receive?
Because civilians are allowed to own guns, every situation police officers respond to could potentially be lethal. According to Brookline Police Officer Peter Muise, this can make officers very anxious, which is part of why they are trained extensively to handle stressful and frightening situations. Muise focuses on teaching defensive and de-escalation techniques.
“You’re trained for the worst, hoping you never have to use it,” Muise said.
Brookline police officers are trained in the use of various lethal and nonlethal weapons, including handguns, batons and mace. O’Leary said he makes sure police officers in the department are licensed and is very strict about firearms licensing and use among officers.
“By licensing, we can place more restrictions on how they handle their guns and make sure they handle their guns properly,” he said.
Training includes a simulation of potential situations where the officers must decide whether or not to use their weapon. The simulation is a projection of a live-action video on a wall, and officers have with them a laser gun which they may decide in the moment to shoot or not. Some of the simulation situations are a shooter in a school, a man holding a woman hostage in a laundromat, and a drunk couple fighting.
“Officers come out of the range rattled. If you don’t come out rattled, there’s something wrong with you,” O’Leary said.
Muise works with the community service training division of the police department. He is a firearms and defensive tactics instructor and he works with the public schools on lockdown and evacuation drills. He said that the department strives to introduce new and proven techniques for policing whenever possible.
“I like to think we’re at least right where we need to be, if not ahead, when it comes to new thought processes and new techniques and we don’t like to wait,” Muise said. “If something good comes down the road, we don’t want to wait a long time before we get our officers training in it.”
For example, Muise said that during the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, Boston police officers carrying tourniquets were able to save the lives of several victims. Now, police officers in Brookline each carry a tourniquet. One was used during the incident on St. Paul Street in January where two men were shot.
New techniques include following up with people involved after incidents are resolved and looking for warning signs of future flare-ups. Muise said he works with police officers to stay calm under pressure and on how to decide when to use a weapon.
Muise said he does not believe shootings by police officers are on the rise.
“Most officers will go their entire careers without ever drawing their firearm,” Muise said. “I think sometimes we get caught up when we see media talking about all the different shootings happening around the country, but the numbers have really not changed. We’re just hearing about them more.”
He said that police officers are held accountable for every bullet they fire and are taught to be extremely cautious with using their weapons.
“You own every bullet that comes out of that gun,” he said.
Is there gun violence in Brookline?
O’Leary said that gun violence is very rare in Brookline, but there is still some potential for it because there are a number of firearms within the town. According to Mallin, there are 437 LTCs and 153 unrestricted FIDs in the town as of February 2, 2016. O’Leary said open carry, meaning visibly carrying a weapon in public, is not allowed in Brookline.
“To have a gun, and to pull it out, you have to have a real good reason for doing it,” O’Leary said, “That goes for officers as well as the public.”
O’Leary said that he is very careful about giving out unrestricted LTCs and that often he is able to convince the applicant to get a restricted LTC. According to him, the state allows police chiefs to use their discretion with regards to giving out unrestricted licenses in their towns. The strict policy in this town has been in place for decades, according to O’Leary, since before he was chief of police.
“We’ve always felt that, and I think the majority of the community feels that, to carry a firearm with you at all times is an responsibility,” O’Leary said.
According to O’Leary, there has been a slight increase in requests for LTCs in the past few years, due in part to firearms schools urging people to apply for LTCs.
“People are asking for unrestricted licenses even though that’s not what they want,” he said.
O’Leary said that if he does not believe a person has a good enough reason for wanting to carry a firearm, he will not allow them to have one.
“If I’m not comfortable, I’m not going to give it,” O’Leary said.
Kendall McGowan contributed reporting.