The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that the Worcester police chief properly denied a man’s application for a license to carry a firearm, where the man had been charged with (but not convicted of) beating his wife in 2005. The name of the case is Chief of Police of the City of Worcester v. Raymond J. Holden, Jr.
On September 10, 2005, Raymond Holden, Jr. and his wife went out to dinner. They began arguing at the restaurant and the argument continued in the car, where Holden allegedly punched his wife in the face, drove to their daughter’s house, pulled her out of the car, threw her to the pavement, and drove away. The wife sustained a scratch over her eye, a swollen lip, and bruising on her arm. The daughter called the police, who responded and took a written statement from the wife. Holden was charged with assault and battery in Westborough District Court two days later and the chief of police suspended his license to carry a firearm the same day. Two weeks later, the criminal case was dismissed at the request of Holden’s wife.
The months and years that followed saw Holden go to court on several occasions to ask a judge to order that his license to carry a gun be restored. At least two district court judges agreed with Holden and ruled that the chief was wrong to suspend the license and, after the dismissal of the criminal case, to refuse to issue a new license to carry. The chief argued that based on the credible evidence contained in the police report, he believed Holden was legally “unsuitable” to receive a license to carry a firearm. After losing in district court, the chief appealed to a superior court judge, who ruled that the chief had discretion to deny Holden’s application for a license to carry a gun. Holden appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the superior court judge’s order upholding the chief’s denial of Holden’s application.
The Supreme Judicial Court noted that Massachusetts has a law that seeks to limit access to deadly weapons by irresponsible people. Therefore, only a “suitable person” is entitled to obtain a license to carry a firearm. The issue is whether Holden can be defined as “unsuitable” for conduct that resulted in a criminal charge, but no conviction (and conduct that was, therefore, not proven beyond a reasonable doubt). Relying on past cases, the Court said that conduct that is violent and criminal renders a person “unsuitable” even if it has not resulted in a criminal conviction. It was proper, according to the Court, for the chief to consider Holden’s alleged beating of his wife to determine if he was a suitable candidate for a license to carry a firearm.
The Court also concluded that there was no evidence that the chief’s decision was capricious or arbitrary. In fact, during a six year period beginning in 2006, he had denied around 200 applications for gun licenses while granting approximately 3,200 applications.
In the end, the Court accepted the chief’s conclusion that Holden had beaten his wife as a valid basis upon which to deny Holden’s application for a license. This presents a difficult legal issue. On one hand, it is in the public’s best interest for police chiefs to deny gun license applications to violent people. On the other hand, nobody (other than the chief) ever confirmed Holden’s guilt in the domestic case. One outcome of this case is clear – a police chief has enormous discretion in deciding whether to issue a gun license.