August 24, 2023
We’ve talked a lot about last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen in which the court prescribed a new process for determining the constitutionality of firearms laws. Since that ruling last June, gun owners have repeatedly won important victories in court while challenging a number of different types of restrictions on gun ownership.
It’s likely that none of those cases, however, are quite as important as a recent case in Massachusetts, where a judge has ruled that the right to carry a firearm for self-defense does not end when a lawful American crosses state lines.
Of course, we have known that all along. After all, the Second Amendment protects a right to “keep and bear arms” and says nothing about doing so only in the state in which you reside. But to have a judge make such a ruling is a giant leap forward for those who believe artificial lines drawn on a map can’t make natural rights suddenly vanish.
The case, Commonwealth v. Dean F. Donnell, heard in Lowell District Court, revolves around a New Hampshire man who was arrested and prosecuted for carrying a firearm in Massachusetts without a permit from that state. In an interesting twist, the defendant’s attorneys argued that Massachusetts law requiring a permit to carry “is unconstitutional on its face, is unconstitutional as applied to the defendant, and violated the defendant’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”
The court, as it should have, chose to use the new Bruen standards, which asks whether the “Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct?” If the answer is yes, it next asked whether there exists a “historical precedent from before, during and even after the founding [that] evidences a comparable tradition of regulation?”
In writing the opinion, Judge John F. Coffee said the Massachusetts law failed on both accounts.
“The conduct of the defendant in the instant case clearly is covered by the Second Amendment,” Judge Coffee wrote. On the second point, he later concluded, “The Commonwealth points to no historical precedent limiting the reach of one’s exercise to a federal constitutional right only within that resident’s state borders.”
While that was powerful enough in itself, Judge Coffee dropped bombshell after bombshell in explaining the ruling. Some of his statements will likely have the average gun owner standing up and cheering.
“A law-abiding resident of New Hampshire who is exercising his constitutional right should not become a felon by exercising that right while he is traveling through Massachusetts merely because he has not obtained a Massachusetts license to carry, which now, under the holding of Bruen, has to be issued to an applicant unless the applicant is otherwise disqualified,” the judge wrote. “The court can think of no other constitutional right which a person loses simply by traveling beyond his home state’s border into another state continuing to exercise that right and instantaneously becomes a felon subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration.”
In summing up the decision, Judge Coffee said what most of us have been thinking for a long time—especially every time we head out for a road trip and have to navigate a patchwork of state and local laws just to remain legal during our travels.
“An individual only loses a constitutional right if he commits an offense or is or has been engaged in certain behavior that is covered by 18 USC section 922,” he wrote. “He doesn’t lose that right simply by traveling into an adjoining state whose state mandates that residents of that state obtain a license prior to exercising their constitutional right. To hold otherwise would inexplicably treat Second Amendment rights differently than other individually held rights.”
Bravo, Judge Coffee. Bruen continues to reshape our country in a good way and gives us renewed hope for the future of the Second Amendment.
Freelance writer and editor Mark Chesnut is the owner/editorial director at Red Setter Communications LLC. An avid hunter, shooter and political observer, he has been covering Second Amendment issues and politics on a near-daily basis for nearly 25 years.