The Corner

Massachusetts Attorney General Unilaterally Rewrites the State’s Gun Laws

Without the legislature, without the governor, and without any form of public consultation, the attorney general of Massachusetts has today rewritten the state’s 1998 Gun Control Act.

In an edict sent out this morning, AG Maura Healey explained that the law no longer meant what it had meant since 1998, but instead would mean what she wanted it to mean. Writing in the Boston Globe, Healey outlined the changes:

The Massachusetts assault weapons ban mirrors the federal ban Congress allowed to expire in 2004. It prohibits the sale of specific weapons like the Colt AR-15 and AK-47 and explicitly bans “copies or duplicates” of those weapons. But gun manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to define what a “copy” or “duplicate” weapon is. They market “state compliant” copycat versions of their assault weapons to Massachusetts buyers. They sell guns without a flash suppressor or folding or telescoping stock, for example, small tweaks that do nothing to limit the lethalness of the weapon.

That will end now. On Wednesday, we are sending a directive to all gun manufacturers and dealers that makes clear that the sale of these copycat assault weapons is illegal in Massachusetts. With this directive, we will ensure we get the full protection intended when lawmakers enacted our assault weapons ban, not the watered-down version of those protections offered by gun manufacturers.

What does this mean in practice? Beats the hell out of me — and, apparently, of gun stores across Massachusetts, many of which have pulled all of the rifles from their shelves while they figure out what on earth just happened.

At best — well, “best” — Healey’s measure could mean that any gun that is named on the state’s banned list can never, ever be sold, irrespective of whether it has the cosmetic features for which it was prohibited in the first place. In other words, it could mean that all AR-15s that have been modified to comport with Massachusetts law are now illegal purely because they are AR-15s. (This scenario would be especially odd given that Healey concedes that there is no good reason to ban accessories, and therefore raises the question of why the state did so in the first instance.)

At worst, this could be an extremely ham-fisted attempt to outlaw all semi-automatic weapons in the state, in flagrant violation of D.C. v Heller’s explicit “common use” standard. If you read Healey’s Globe article closely, you’ll see her confirm that “if a gun’s operating system is essentially the same as that of a banned weapon, or if the gun has components that are interchangeable with those of a banned weapon, it’s a ‘copy’ or ‘duplicate,’ and it is illegal.” Well, if taken literally, that would cover pretty much every modern firearm in existence, as all Healey would have to do is point to similarities between a weapon she wants to ban and a weapon named on the state’s banned list and, hey presto!, no guns at all can be sold in Massachusetts.

Or it could be something in between: That is, the law could now mean whatever the incumbent attorney general happens to think that it should mean.

Leaving aside how utterly stupid it is for governments to categorize and to prohibit weapons in this manner; ignoring for now that Massachusetts’s strictest-in-the-nation gun-control laws have coincided with an increase in gun crime, against the national trend; and averting our eyes from the fact that Healey is responding to a non-problem (there were literally no murders committed with rifles in her state last year), that the millions of people who live in Massachusetts are allowing their rights to be regulated on-the-fly by a single ill-informed official is utterly astonishing. In order to avoid the confusion and the caprice that this sort of behavior inevitably yields, I propose a better means of regulating the behavior of the citizenry henceforth: We could call it “the law,” and we could demand that it be written by “legislators” and subject to the strictures of a “constitution.” Crazy, I know.

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