Black Bostonians ramp up calls for gun access

Terrance Williams

Bostonians, who have long faced tough hurdles to secure gun licenses compared to suburban peers, are pressing state lawmakers to ease those restrictions as new gun reform legislation advances on Beacon Hill this season.

And, increasingly, the calls on behalf of expanding Second Amendment rights are coming from men and women of color who live in Dorchester and Mattapan.

State Rep. Russell Holmes, who represents parts of both neighborhoods, says he is paying attention to their calls.

“It’s a legal right they are asking for and I need to open my eyes to the fact that folks in my community feel their Second Amendment rights are being infringed upon,” said Holmes, who said he’s approached everywhere – even at church – about expanding gun rights.

His colleague in the Fifth Suffolk district, Rep. Chris Worrell, said he’s been fielding similar calls from constituents in other parts of Dorchester and Roxbury that he represents.

“Am I a gun person? No,” said Worrell. “I’m not a gun guy and don’t own a gun but there are a lot of people here in the neighborhood who want to exercise their Second Amendment rights and obtain a license and have not been able to.”

“People who are responsible are not committing the acts of gun violence we see here. People do want it legally,” he admits.

The new wave of lobbying comes as Holmes and Worrell’s colleagues negotiate the specifics of a major firearms bill that is now being hashed out by lawmakers in committee meetings— with an eye towards finalizing new rules in the coming months. The House and Senate both have their own, diverging versions of bills that need to be reconciled into a final form that is expected by July 1.

Holmes and Worrell say they are getting unprecedented input from Black and brown constituents who are sharing their concerns about unfair and even discriminatory obstacles to getting legal permits to carry or own firearms. A US Supreme Court decision in 2022 specifically called out Massachusetts as one of the states deemed as too strict for granting “conceal and carry” licenses.

Boston Police have jurisdiction over how applicants are issued gun permits in the city. According to the BPD licensing division, there were 2,654 “license to carry” (LTC) permit applications sought by city residents last year, along with 72 Firearm Identification Card (FID) applications. It’s not clear from the department how many were actually issued.

Brian Dalton, who owns the New England Firearms Academy in Woburn, trains people who are seeking permits in gun safety. He says he’s seen a surge in Boston residents— mainly Black and brown people—seeking his services.

“I would say a good 50 percent coming to me now are females and people of color,” said Dalton, a former law enforcement officer. “We require live-fire sessions first before training if they don’t have firearm experience and I’d say about 80 percent are people of color with no experience with firearms, except maybe if they were in the military.”

Many of his clients, Dalton says, are frustrated that legal gun ownership is so skewed to residents of suburban communities.
“For a long time, Boston wasn’t open at all for Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester people owning firearms and meanwhile their streets were lit up every night,” he said. “What people are saying is ‘why can’t we learn to get the license to carry a firearm?’... Firearm ownership is a right — and not a privilege like driving.”

At Dalton’s Academy, he quickly brings everyone down to earth – especially those new to guns – and spots inappropriate behavior. He said his training is primarily for those wanting to get into sport shooting. Others are looking to work in security, and there are a large amount who want to protect themselves “as a last resort option,” he said.

“There are new opportunities now with education, business ownership,” he said. “We’re not commandoes though. Leave law enforcement to law enforcement and learn to love the sport and participating in competitions…People doing this need to clearly understand they aren’t Wyatt Earp.”

Dorchester’s Terrance Williams, 55, is one of those training with Dalton and pressing lawmakers to end harsher restrictions to legal ownership for Black Bostonians.

His own request to secure an LTC has been denied, even though he works part-time in the civil division of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. Once his uniform comes off, however, he says a youthful arrest that was dismissed, and a juvenile conviction that has since been pardoned, have blocked his access to carry a firearm in Boston.

“It seems crazy to me that I can carry the department’s firearm, but I can’t carry my own firearm,” said Williams.

BPD licensing is “a real challenge” for Williams and others like him— he says— “because they look at everything that has ever happened to you, whereas other towns around us don’t.’”

“If you’ve been arrested, conviction or not, they will deny you and make you appeal it,” he said. “That will cost you money and they don’t want you to prevail. That’s why it’s a brush under the rug.”

Williams claims the 1984 juvenile case that first led to his permit denials was one of self-defense during “horseplay” in school. In June 2023, Williams stood behind Gov. Maura Healey at a press conference in which she pardoned him for the crime.

Another later arrest, he claims, stemmed from the infamous Charles Stuart case, when – in a frenzied search – Black males were often ordered to be “stop and frisked” by Boston Police. When Williams refused, he said he was charged with assault and battery on a police officer. Although he wasn’t convicted and the cases were dismissed, he says it’s still held against him when seeking permits. He continues to fight that denial on appeal, and said he has a scheduled court hearing April 25.

“Those were the charges they filed against us when we refused to pull down our pants in the street – disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a police officer,” he said. “That’s how that all happened, and I’m still being penalized for it.”

“It’s double jeopardy when it comes to Black and Brown folks,” he added, noting suburban friends did worse as young people and aren’t penalized.

Williams says he believes in comprehensive training, and a thorough understanding of gun safety. His wife and his adult children have also sought out licenses.

A woman being trained at the New England Firearms Academy recently. City residents, particularly people of color from Dorchester and Mattapan, have become one of the fastest growing groups of folks requesting training for License to Carry (LTC) permits. Legislators from the area said they are getting numerous phone calls from constituents asking for easier access to firearms as they craft a new gun reform bill.
Photo courtesy New England Firearms Academy

“There’s a lot of people I know that have been applying since the Supreme Court decision,” he said. “You could want to get it for hunting or target shooting or if you had a business that required it – like, for me, armed security. I’m glad the Supreme Court finally stood up and said ‘no.’ We have our Second Amendment right to bear arms and we should be allowed to exercise those rights.”

Elizabeth Hinds-Ferrick, a Black woman from Fields Corner who was recently elected to serve on the Republican State Committee, is also pursuing her LTC. She said part of her platform will be to hold ‘Know Your Rights’ meetings in Dorchester – with the Second Amendment a key topic.

“These are the people that are responsible,” she said of friends and family members who are also seeking permits. “They have their guns locked up and safe. They are responsible gun owners and not like those who are getting illegal guns. The people getting illegal guns will always find a way to get guns.”

The issue, it seems, transcends party affiliation.

Darryl Smith, a Democratic Party organizer and co-founder of Boston Communities of Color, said gun ownership and equity is coming up more frequently – including at last month’s Ward 14 Democratic Caucus.

Smith says incidents involving white supremacist groups from outside the city— and the aggressive tone of the national political climate— are partly behind the shift.

Last summer, he said, numerous residents along Norwell Street and the Franklin Field area, and in Mattapan Square, reported a group of self-proclaimed “Nazis” arriving there to spray-paint graffiti and hateful slogans on houses, cars, and buildings.

“It’s not necessarily that people want a gun to go do X-Y-Z, but it’s people getting put in situations,” he said. “Who would have thought we would have Nazis in our neighborhood? Now you have to seriously think about how to protect your children and family.

“No one wants to be caught off guard and you have these people coming in our neighborhoods very boldly.”

Smith noted there is a sense of people wanting to be prepared for anything – whether that’s local street crime or national extremism. He said people of color in Boston don’t typically think about gun ownership, but a sense of things being “out of control” has changed that.

“I’ve never owned a gun or thought about a gun, but you look at these things and I think maybe I want to think about getting a gun because there’s a sense of things getting out of control,” said Smith. “I’m contemplating it very seriously. I’ve not done anything, but again, no one wants to be caught off guard.”

For lawmakers like Holmes, the incoming calls are ones he cannot ignore.

“It’s an unusual request for me,” Holmes admits. “I’m saying, ‘When did this happen in the Black community because I have gun violence all up and down Blue Hill Avenue in my district.’ But these are friends and regular, real people, not crazy gun enthusiasts but real people that I know who say this is something they want to do…I’m not happy about it but I have to open my eyes to it.”

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