New Guns Rule in Massachusetts

The Second Amendment gives people the constitutional right to keep and use firearms. But the right isn’t unlimited. There has been much debate in politics on what restrictions states and local communities should be able to place on gun ownership. The courts have looked at the question from a legal point-of-view. Courts regularly release new case decisions interpreting the law. They answer what restrictions on gun ownership are lawful and what rights gunowners have to keep and use firearms.

Massachusetts’ highest court released one such case back in April called Commonwealth v. Guardado. Guardado is a very important case for Massachusetts gun owners charged with the offense of unlawful possession of a firearm. It creates a new defense that will help ensure that law-abiding gun owners are not punished for crimes they didn’t commit.

What does it mean to unlawfully possess a firearm in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts has strict laws regulating firearms ownership. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 269, Section 10 is the key one. This lengthy statute punishes some of the most commonly charged firearms crimes in the state. It includes:

  • Unlawfully carrying a firearm
  • Unlawfully possessing a firearm
  • Illegally possessing ammunition
  • Failing to surrender a revoked or suspended license to carry or firearms identification card
  • Failing to surrender a firearm after revocation or suspension of a license to carry or firearms identification card

So unlawful possession is just one crime under the law. Before the Guardado case, in order to prove a person guilty of this crime the government needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt only that the accused:

  • Possessed a firearm
  • Knew it was a firearm
  • Did not have a valid firearms identification card or have a valid substitute

These three requirements or elements of the crime were changed as a result of this case. Thanks to Guardado, the government now has to prove a fourth element: the defendant did NOT have a valid firearms license.

Because the government has to prove an additional element, people charged with unlawful firearms possession now have a defense that the government did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did not have a valid firearms license.

What was Guardado about?

In Guardado, Carlos Guardado was indicted by a grand jury on charges that included unlawful possession of a firearm. He was convicted and his lawyer appealed.

Carlos’ argument on appeal was that the jury was not instructed by the judge correctly. At a criminal trial, after the lawyers for both sides call witnesses, present evidence, and give their closing statements, the judge instructs the jury on the law they are to use to decide the case. The ordinary people that make up a jury are not expected to know the law before they serve on the jury. Through jury instructions, the judge tells them what the law is and how they are to decide the case. Juries are factfinders, which mean their job is to decide what happened. Based on what happened, they apply the facts to the law and reach a verdict. A verdict is the final decision of the case: guilty or not guilty.

Carlos’ argument was that the judge did not correctly tell the jurors that the Commonwealth needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not have a firearms license at the time of his arrest. This was an error.

Why did the Court determine that Carlos was right?

The Court determined that Carlos was correct. It based its decision off of a recent US Supreme Court case called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. In Bruen, the country’s highest court ruled that the Second Amendment“protects an individual’s right to carry a firearm in public.” The key phrase is “in public.” Overbroad laws that prohibit carrying a firearm outside of the home are unconstitutional.

Because of this, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined that the government needed to prove absence of a license to comply with the Bruen decision. When it comes to constitutional rights in the US constitution, the US Supreme Court has the final say. Even Massachusetts’ highest court must follow these decisions.

As a result, Carlos was granted a new trial.

How does the Commonwealth prove no license?

The Guardado decision also discusses how the Commonwealth proves the new element. Remember that no person can be convicted of a crime unless the government proves each essential element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

The case says that the government should be very careful presenting evidence of no license. One way they could do it is by a signed written statement from an appropriate state official that after a “diligent search,” no record of a valid firearms license could be found at the time the offense was committed. That state official might also be called to testify. However, it is important that any testifying state official must have adequate knowledge on how firearms records are kept. Simply submitting an affidavit or sworn statement of the recordkeeper would likely not be enough.

Why is Guardado important?

Massachusetts courts are still adjusting to the Guardado opinion, so much is still uncertain. However, what is know is that the burden of proving no license has shifted. Before the case, possession of a license was an affirmative defense, meaning the defendant had to submit proof of a license and the Commonwealth only then would be required to rebut it. Now the Commonwealth must submit evidence as it makes its case at trial that the accused did not have a valid license.

The most effective criminal defense attorney holds the Commonwealth to its burden. A person cannot lose their freedom unless the crime is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.



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