Firearms Possession by Minors & Unlicensed Persons

Some places, such as New York City, have extremely strict laws that have been interpreted to mean that unlicensed individuals and minors are prohibited from even touching certain firearms. Fortunately Massachusetts is not (yet) at this stage, yet there are still strict guidelines and laws that gun owners should be aware of whenever an unlicensed individual or minor has access to ones firearms or ammunition.

 Foreward

A few things for the reader to remember:

There are few sections in the M.G.L.’s that specifically address unlicensed individuals. Rather, it must often be inferred what is required of gun owners when dealing with unlicensed individuals and minors. This is done by careful study and analysis of applicable M.G.L.’s (such as when they state that only licensed individuals are permitted to do something), study of case law and interpretation of laws by established authorities. When my personal opinion is offered on a matter where hard facts and statutes are absent, I will duly note so.

Also, in terms of Massachusetts firearms law unlicensed individuals and minors are often simply distinctions without a difference. This is again largely because in the M.G.L.’s neither is often specifically referred to. However there are parts of the M.G.L.’s that specifically refer to minors, thus creating special circumstances for them, which I will mention where it is appropriate to do so. Minor should also not necessarily be interpreted to mean those under the age of 18, because in many respects a minor is someone under 21 (especially in terms of handguns). I will highlight this distinction where appropriate. One should remember that the two are not mutually exclusive, i.e. there are minors who are licensed and adults who are unlicensed. Lastly, one should assume that all references are made to residents of Massachusetts unless otherwise noted. Often gun owners mistakenly confuse exceptions carved out specifically for non-residents; this section will aim to rectify those inaccurate interpretations.

Lastly, because this section covers a somewhat wide area of Massachusetts firearms law it will be organized according to unlicensed individual vs. minors, and split by activity.

Unlicensed Individuals

Target Shooting and the Range

 M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 129C (m) states the following:

 “The temporary holding, handling or firing of a firearm for examination, trial or instruction in the presence of a holder of a license to carry firearms, or the temporary holding, handling or firing of a rifle or shotgun for examination, trial or instruction in the presence of a holder of a firearm identification card, or where such holding, handling or firing is for a lawful purpose”

Clause (m) allows for unlicensed individuals to shoot handguns (firearm means handgun in this section), rifles and shotguns in the presence of a licensed individual. Take special note that “presence” is used here instead of the more common “direct control”. Presence may be a less strict standard in terms of the amount of observation a licensed individual must exert over an unlicensed individual. For example, if an unlicensed individual was shooting on one end of an outdoor range, and the licensed individual walked to the other end of the range, it could still be said that the unlicensed individual was in the presence of the licensed individual, albeit probably not under their direct control.

 Why the distinction then? Because although the law does not require the higher level of observation from the licensed individual, it would still be prudent for the licensed individual to go above what the law requires and always be under the direct control of the firearm(s). Not only is this wise from a safety standard (especially when dealing with a new shooter), but because of the fact that many law enforcement officers and even perhaps range officials would be unaware of the degree of observation required.

 Note: no mention of machine guns is made. Ron Glidden in the 18th edition of “Law Enforcement Guide to Firearms Law” theorizes that this prohibits possession by anyone unlicensed, meaning those who lack a green card (machine gun license). Any NFA owner should first consult with a firearms attorney before allowing anyone unlicensed to handle their machine gun(s).

Also note that clause (m) makes no mention of age restrictions (more on this later).

Non-Residents

There are several exemptions for non-residents that wish to engage in target shooting in Massachusetts:

M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 129C (g) –“Possession of rifles and shotguns and ammunition therefor by nonresidents while on a firing or shooting range”*

M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 131G – “Any person who is not a resident of the commonwealth may carry a pistol or revolver in or through the commonwealth for the purpose of taking part in a pistol or revolver competition or attending any meeting or exhibition of any organized group of firearm collectors or for the purpose of hunting; provided, that such person is a resident of the United States and has a permit or license to carry firearms issued under the laws of any state”**

* One should note that this exemption only covers possession of non-large capacity rifles and shotguns. Possession high-capacity rifles and shotguns, as well as handguns would require either a non-resident Class A or B LTC.

** This exemption requires that an official event be taking place. A casual afternoon outing at the range would not suffice, but a recognized .22 pin shoot may be covered. If one wishes to utilize this exemptions where appropriate they should probably take care to print out a copy of this law as well as a copy of the event announcement.

Hunting

Taking Massachusetts residents hunting, whom are unlicensed and over the age of 15 hunting and also lack a hunting license is a grey area within the law. No specific exemption is made for them, even if accompanied by and in the presence of licensed individuals. Various interpretations have been taken by gun owners: for instance “As long as one person is licensed and only one long arm is shared it is legal” or “as long as only one bag limit is shared it is legal”. None of these interpretations are supported by law and thus should not be followed. They likely stem from inaccurate understanding of what is covered by the non-resident exemptions (discussed later).

If they lack both a hunting license and firearms license they can only follow along while you hunt. They can not touch your firearm or partake in hunting in any way. They should be especially mindful to be respectful of the environment; should a wildlife official approach you (plural) it could be possible for them to interpret the presence of the unlicensed individual as harassing the wildlife due to lack of official documentation permitting for their presence at the hunting location.

If they lack only a firearms license but hold a hunting license, this area gets even “greyer”. Clearly they hold a license that states they may hunt, however there is no exemption that states unlicensed (meaning firearms license) individuals may hunt regardless of being in the presence of someone holding a firearms license. It also seems to be de facto policy to require a firearms license before issuance of a hunting license, although such policy is not required by law. The MassWildlife website states the following, under the “Hunting License Purchase Requirements” section where they discuss exemptions for minors:

“In order to hunt with most types of guns, Massachusetts residents need to contact their local police station and apply for either a Firearms Identification Card (FID) or a License to Carry Firearms (LTC). Contact your local police department for information about your status regarding Massachusetts gun licensing requirements.”

This seems to require that anyone wishing to hunt that is not covered under the minor and non-resident exemptions must hold a firearms license. Even if one is to postulate that such interpretation is not grounded in the law, it still confirms that MassWildlife and their enforcement officers will likely take that approach and cite “violators” according to this reasoning. The key here is to not confuse hunting regulations with firearms law; to do such often leads to flawed interpretations of what it legal and illegal. Anyone wishing to allow an unlicensed individual, whether it be a minor or non-resident, to hunt with them should consult with a firearms attorney experienced in this specific area of the law.

Non-Resident Hunters whom are Unlicensed

M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 129C (f) specifically exempts non-resident hunters from firearms licensing requirements:

“Possession of rifles and shotguns and ammunition therefor by nonresident hunters with valid nonresident hunting licenses during hunting season”

One should note that a hunting license is still required to hunt in Massachusetts regardless of residency, and said license requires completion of a hunters safety course (refer to hunting section for more info).

Storage

 M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 131L states the requirements for firearms storage in Massachusetts:

“It shall be unlawful to store or keep any firearm, rifle or shotgun including, but not limited to, large capacity weapons, or machine gun in any place unless such weapon is secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device, properly engaged so as to render such weapon inoperable by any person other than the owner or other lawfully authorized user. For purposes of this section, such weapon shall not be deemed stored or kept if carried by or under the control of the owner or other lawfully authorized user.”

Pay careful attention to this line, “properly engaged so as to render such weapon inoperable by any person other than the owner or other lawfully authorized user.” This means that all firearms stored must be inoperable by unauthorized users; including unlicensed individuals. To clarify, this does not mean that the firearm must be inaccessible, but rather inoperable. It could thus be argued that a licensed individual who allowed an unlicensed individual to take their cable-locked firearm into another room of the house for cleaning purposes was in full compliance with the law, assuming that the cable lock was applied in such a manner as to render the firearm inoperable (i.e. through the action).

We can infer from §§ 131L that unlicensed individuals residing in the home must not have the information necessary to unlock said firearms. For instance, if a husband had firearms secured in a safe but otherwise left unlocked then the unlicensed wife should not know the combination to the safe; otherwise the firearms would not be “properly engaged”. The same could be said for knowing the location to keys that unlock cable-locks or trigger guards secured to firearms.

An FID Card in regards to handguns would also, for the purposes of this issue, render an individual unlicensed because an FID Card does not allow for possession of a handgun in the home unless said handgun was procured via a permit to purchase.

Minors

Target Shooting and the Range

For those under the age of 21 this area of firearms law becomes very grey. This is because of seemingly contradictory laws that leave open to question what is legal and illegal for minors to shoot.

M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 129C (m):

“The temporary holding, handling or firing of a firearm for examination, trial or instruction in the presence of a holder of a license to carry firearms, or the temporary holding, handling or firing of a rifle or shotgun for examination, trial or instruction in the presence of a holder of a firearm identification card, or where such holding, handling or firing is for a lawful purpose”

M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 129C (k):

“Any person under the age of fifteen with respect to the use of a rifle or shotgun by such person in hunting or target shooting, provided that such use is otherwise permitted by law and is under the immediate supervision of a person holding a firearm identification card or a license to carry firearms”

M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 130:

“Whoever sells or furnishes… any person under eighteen years of age a rifle, shotgun, machine gun or ammunition, or whoever sells or furnishes to any person under 21 years of age a firearm or large capacity rifle or shotgun or ammunition therefor shall have his license to sell firearms, rifles, shotguns, machine guns and or ammunition revoked and shall not be entitled to apply for such license for ten years from the date of such revocation and shall be punished by a fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $10,000, or by imprisonment in a state prison for not more than ten years or by imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than two and one-half years, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

and;

“Nothing in this section or section one hundred and thirty-one E shall be construed to prohibit a parent or guardian from allowing his child or ward, who has not attained age fifteen, the supervised use of a rifle or shotgun or ammunition therefore.

If we were to only consider clause (m) it would seem to allow for minors of any age to shoot any firearm so long as under the direct supervision of a firearms license holder appropriately licensed for said firearm (firearm means handgun in this section). Yet clause (k) only means rifles and shotguns and makes no mention of firearms (i.e. handguns) or high-capacity rifles and shotguns. It would therefore seem, taking these two clauses into account, that those under 15 are allowed only to shoot low-capacity rifles and shotguns, and those above 15 years of age are unrestricted as to what they may shoot.

Unfortunately this situation gets even murkier with the addition of M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 130, because depending on how one interprets the section it can further restrict what those under 21 may shoot. “Furnish” is of the utmost importance here; as it is up to the gun owner to determine whether allowing a minor between the ages of 15-20 to shoot a handgun or high-capacity rifle/shotgun under their direct supervision constitutes “furnishing”. One may assume that furnish is meant to indicate illicit sales, yet nowhere in the law is this stated and a gun owner should not necessarily assume such.

Furthermore, had §§ 130 included a line exempting such use for those between the ages of 15-20 while under the direct supervision of a licensed individual this dilemma would not exist, or at least it would be less grey. However the line that does exempt such use only addresses those under 15 years of age, again reiterating what §§ 129C (k) has already established in that such minors may only shoot low-capacity rifle and shotguns.

Anyone wishing to allow a minor under the age of 21 to shoot their handgun or high-capacity rifle or shotgun should first consult with an experienced firearms attorney.

Hunting

Under 12 years of age

Not permitted to hunt in Massachusetts

12-14 years of age

Minors between these ages are permitted to hunt in Massachusetts. However they are not eligible to receive a hunter education certificate as well as to hold a hunting license. Thus, several restrictions apply:

  • Must be accompanied by a licensed adult
  • The bag limit established by law for one person is not exceeded
  • Only one firearm is used and shared
  • No more than one minor per each adult

15-17 years of age

Minors between these ages must have a hunting license if they wish to hunt. As previously discussed, it is a grey area to take an unlicensed individual hunting. Refer to that section for further info.

18-20 years of age

In terms of hunting regulations those between these ages are treated no differently than those 21 years old and above. However, there could be issues for said minor wishing to hunt with a handgun. At the very least they would need to be accompanied by someone duly licensed to possess a handgun, and even then it is not clear if it is ever legal for such minors to shoot a handgun. Furthermore, there are contradictory laws regarding handgun possession while hunting (please refer to the hunting section for more info).

Storage

Storage requirements are no different when a minor is involved, meaning nothing different must be done by a gun owner beyond what is already required by the law simply because a minor is living at the home.

However, the penalties that a gun owner faces for failing to properly store a firearm when a minor may have accessed it are enhanced, often quite drastically, according to M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 131L:

 Non-large capacity

  • No minor may have accessed a non-large capacity rifle or shotgun – $500-5,000 fine and/or imprisonment for up to 1 year.
  • Unlicensed minor may have accessed a non-large capacity rifle or shotgun – $1,000-10,000 fine and/or imprisonment for between 1-10 years.

Large capacity firearms

  • No minor may have accessed a large capacity firearm or machine gun – $1,000-10,000 fine and/or imprisonment for between 1-10 years.
  • Unlicensed minor may have accessed a large capacity firearm or machine gun – $5,000-10,000 fine and/or imprisonment for between 2.5-10 years.

In addition to these enhanced penalties, one must also consider how they would interpret M.G.L. c. 140, §§ 130. It may seem that “furnish” is meant as an intentional act whereby a gun owner would deliberately provide a restricted firearm to a minor. This however may or may not be the case, as a prosecutor could argue that failing to secure a firearm that a minor accessed should also carry the penalties provided in §§ 130 for furnishing a firearm to a minor: $1,000-10,000 fine and/or confinement in a prison for up to 10 years, or a jail for no more than 2.5 years.

This article was written by Marcus Dilloff.