The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the conviction of a Tewksbury man for unlawfully possessing a pistol that he had legally owned while previously living in New Hampshire. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Harris.
The defendant had been a New Hampshire resident when he began dating a woman who lived in Tewksbury. In May of 2015, the defendant moved into his girlfriend’s apartment. Less than a month later, he allegedly physically assaulted the girlfriend when he found a picture of her ex-boyfriend and warned her that he was “the most brutal person” she would meet. On September 11, 2015, the couple argued about the girlfriend’s work schedule and the defendant removed his pistol from the bedroom closet. He packed the gun, along with some clothing, in a backpack and left. Several hours later the defendant returned to the Tewksbury apartment and became upset when his girlfriend pointed out he was drunk. When the defendant began trashing the apartment, the girlfriend left and called the cops. The defendant told the responding officers he had gone out drinking before “coming home” to Tewksbury. He turned over his pistol, which had been in the trunk of his car, to the police and said he had a New Hampshire firearm license (but no Massachusetts license). Because the defendant was drunk, he was taken into protective custody. He was later charged with unlawfully carrying a firearm. A jury found the defendant guilty and he was sentenced to serve 18 months in jail (which is the mandatory minimum sentence for illegally carrying a gun in Massachusetts). He appealed and the SJC affirmed.
The defendant argued his New Hampshire firearm license allowed him to carry his pistol in Massachusetts notwithstanding any Massachusetts gun laws. The SJC rejected this argument, pointing out that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s full faith and credit clause does not require one state to substitute its own statutes with those of another state. In other words, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are each entitled to enact their own legislation regarding gun restrictions and are not compelled to accept the other state’s laws. Accordingly, while the defendant was properly licensed in New Hampshire, he needed to also be properly licensed in Massachusetts in order to carry his gun in the Commonwealth. Because he didn’t have a Massachusetts license, his conviction was lawful.
The defendant also argued his conduct fell within several exceptions to the Massachusetts gun statute that should have entitled him to an acquittal. First, he argued that he never became a resident of Massachusetts and was simply traveling through Massachusetts in September of 2015. However, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to believe the defendant had resided with his girlfriend in Tewksbury for more than three months by the time the police seized his gun. The defendant also did not take advantage of a grace period that allowed him 60 days to obtain a Massachusetts firearm license after moving into the state. If the police had seized his gun in June instead of September, he would not have been charged. Finally, the defendant argued he was protected under a federal law that allowed him to transport his weapon through a state where he was unlicensed as long as he ended up in a state where he was allowed to carry the gun. The problem with his argument is he ended up back in Massachusetts, where he did not have a license to carry.