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Our region’s gun laws vary widely

A military shoulder-fired rocket launcher, center, stands on end Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Trenton, N.J., surrounded by a display of 2,600 guns, including 700 that were illegal, that were turned in last Friday and Saturday during a gun buyback program in the state's capital. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

A military shoulder-fired rocket launcher, center, stands on end Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Trenton, N.J., surrounded by a display of 2,600 guns, including 700 that were illegal, that were turned in last Friday and Saturday during a gun buyback program in the state's capital. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

As the national conversation on gun control continues, states are examining their own firearms laws.

Federal laws enacted throughout the 20th century placed a number of restrictions on firearms sales.

They spell out a list of conditions that prohibit certain people from buying firearms. People convicted of violent and certain non-violent crimes, known drug addicts, persons who have been committed to mental institutions, illegal aliens and dishonorably discharged veterans are among them.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires that all federally licensed firearms dealers perform instant background checks through an FBI database before selling someone a handgun or rifle. However, loopholes allow private party and gun show sales without background checks, unless prohibited by state law. This is one of many areas of gun control currently left for states to decide.

A 10-year federal ban on assault weapons ended in 2004, leaving the legality of high-capacity, military-style rifles up to individual states. Massachusetts preempted the ban’s expiration in 1998 with a permanent state ban on post-1994 assault weapons and high-capacity firearms.

Both of these areas are among those being reexamined in the national gun control debate.

A 2012 report by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rated Massachusetts third in strongest gun laws, followed by Connecticut in fourth place. New York ranked sixth, though it may scoot up a few places after recently passed legislation.

Vermont was determined to have the fourth-weakest gun laws out of all 50 states by the report, with South Dakota ranked first in that category.

So what are the gun laws in our region, and how easy is it to get a gun in Massachusetts and nearby states?

Massachusetts

Massachusetts offers three paths to legal gun ownership, and all start with a state application filed with your local police department. A gun safety course and background checks are required before a license is issued.

A class-A license to carry allows the holder to own large and non large-capacity weapons: rifles, shotguns, and handguns, as well as to carry a concealed, loaded handgun. A class-B license to carry allows holders to purchase non large-capacity firearms, and to carry a loaded handgun in plain sight. For rifles and handguns that effectively limits the clip to 10 shots. A firearms identification card allows the purchase of rifles and shotguns, and ammunition, but not handguns.

Currently, gun shows in Massachusetts are required to provide electronic access to firearms databases to record gun sales and transfers. Though a background check is not required at gun shows in the state, an in-state FID or license to carry permit is required for purchases, and the application process for state licenses includes a background check.

Machine guns are strictly regulated in Massachusetts, with licenses given only to certified police firearms trainers and “bona fide collectors.”

Massachusetts does not recognize firearms licenses or permits from other states, though several states recognize licenses from the Bay State.

This has spelled trouble for legal, out-of-state gun owners who crossed into the commonwealth without checking its gun laws. The state only allows those without Massachusetts licenses to possess firearms while hunting with a valid hunting license, on a shooting range, or at a firearms show.

Those just passing through may transport a rifle or shotgun unloaded and enclosed in a locked compartment case, according to state law.

Though the state has an assault weapon ban, many assault-style rifles are still available, as long as they don’t have two or more of certain features, like collapsible stocks, flash suppressors, or barrels threaded to accept accessories. Many military-style rifles have been redesigned by manufacturers to fit these laws.

The state also mandates reporting of lost or stolen guns.

Gun laws in Massachusetts are considered some of the strictest in the country, but such is not the case for some neighboring states.

Vermont

In the Green Mountain State, people can buy guns before they’re old enough to buy cigarettes. As long as customers 16 and older can pass an instant background check, they can purchase a firearm, without a permit or even parental permission.

Vermont does not require a license or permit for the purchase of handguns, rifles, shotguns, or assault rifles. Machine guns are also legal in Vermont with the proper federal license.

The state doesn’t require a license or permit to carry loaded handguns in the open or concealed. Legal gun owners may do so nearly anywhere in the state, excluding schools, courts, and federal buildings.

People have to be 16 or older to buy any firearms, but there is no age limit for possession of unloaded long guns.

Vermont does not require background checks for gun show purchases or private sales. It also does not require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

New Hampshire

Guns in the Granite State are slightly more regulated than in Vermont.

A license is required to carry a loaded, concealed weapon, and the state allows both residents and out-of-staters to receive one. New Hampshire allows gun owners to carry a loaded handgun on their person in full view without a license, and carry an unloaded handgun concealed as long as the person has no ammunition on his or her person. A concealed carry license is required to keep a loaded handgun in a vehicle, whether the weapon is in view or not.

New Hampshire recognizes out-of-state licenses to carry concealed as long as the other state recognizes New Hampshire licenses.

The state does not require a permit or license for the purchase of handguns, long guns, or ammunition. There is no assault weapon ban in New Hampshire, and large capacity feeding devices are legal as well.

New York

When the year began, New York already had some of the strictest gun control laws in the union. On Jan. 15, those laws became even tighter.

The new laws lower the maximum capacity of firearms legal in the state to seven rounds; the previous limit was 10. It allows owners of the now-banned guns to keep them, provided that they register the weapons with state police within a year.

The new state law also adds several firearms to the list of banned assault weapons. In addition, the law includes provisions aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

As in Massachusetts, previous New York laws extended the 1994-2004 federal assault weapon ban, and also requires background checks for purchases at gun shows.

No license is required to purchase long guns, but those seeking pistols need to first receive a handgun license. The carrying of a handgun is not allowed unless the gun owner has a permit for open or concealed carrying.

Gun control laws within the Empire State vary, because New York allows its municipalities to institute their own firearms laws. For example, New York City places several more restrictions on firearms than state laws spell out.

Connecticut

Home to Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the December shooting that left 28 dead and rekindled the nationwide gun control debate, Connecticut is looking into its own gun laws. Less restrictive than Massachusetts laws, the Constitution State’s firearms regulations are still some of the more stringent in the country.

State law requires that dealers at gun shows conduct instant background checks at the time of sale for all types of guns. Private party sales outside of gun shows, however, are exempt from background checks.

Connecticut has a state assault weapon ban, but does not place restrictions on the ammunition capacity for magazines or other ammunition feeding devices. Despite the ban, several military-style rifles are legal in the state.

High-capacity magazines are available without a license or background check, as the state considers them gun accessories.

State law allows Connecticut towns and cities to make their own firearms laws, and also to deny concealed weapons permits townwide.

Machine guns are allowed under state law, provided the owner has a federal machine gun license. Certain .50-caliber guns and ammunition types are prohibited by state law.

With the gun control debate in high gear, and new gun control measures proposed at national and state levels, these laws could change soon.

For more information on current state gun laws, visit the Brady Center at www.bradycampaign.org/stategunlaws, or the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence at www.smartgunlaws.org.

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