BOSTON - Massachusetts' highest court ruled Tuesday that the state's ban on civilian possession of stun guns violates the U.S. Constitution's right to bear arms.
The decision is a reversal for the court, which reached an opposite conclusion in a different case in 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, set aside that earlier ruling, saying the Massachusetts court failed to properly explain its decision.
The Supreme Judicial Court said it would leave the 2004 ban in place for 60 days to give the Legislature time to rewrite the law to regulate the ownership of stun guns, without banning them entirely.
"We conclude that the absolute prohibition against civilian possession of stun guns ... is in violation of the Second Amendment, and we order that the count of the complaint charging the defendant with such possession be dismissed with prejudice," the justices wrote.
The defendant, Jorge Ramirez, was charged with illegal possession of a stun gun after a traffic stop in Revere in 2015. He also was later charged with possession of other firearms without the proper licenses.
Ramirez's bid to throw out the stun gun charge on constitutional grounds was turned down by a lower court judge, but later referred to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The law prohibits individuals from ownership of any "portable device or weapon from which an electrical current, impulse, wave or beam may be directed," and in a manner intended to "incapacitate temporarily, injure or kill." The law exempts law enforcement officers.
In Tuesday's ruling, the court chose not to make a legal distinction between stun guns, which requires direct contact with a target, and Tasers, which are more typically used by police and can deliver an electroshock from up to 30 feet away.
Massachusetts is among a handful of U.S. states, including New York, Hawaii and Rhode Island, which ban outright the civilian ownership of stun guns. Many other states have restrictions on sale and possession of the devices.
The earlier ruling in Massachusetts involved the arrest of a woman who told police she carried a stun gun as protection against a former boyfriend. In that case, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the woman's conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the ruling. The charge against the woman was later dismissed by mutual agreement but without a further determination of the constitutional questions.
Under Tuesday's ruling, the current law remains in effect for 60 days to give state lawmakers the chance to write a new law that could make stun guns subject to the same or similar licensing requirements as other types of firearms.
"We're glad that the SJC has finally recognized that this is a legitimate self-defence tool," said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Massachusetts Gun Owners Action League.
But Wallace took exception to language the justices used describing stun guns as being dangerous or lethal. He argued that might encourage lawmakers to impose overly stringent regulations.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the Democrat was reviewing options and would file legislation within 60 days. Democratic Senate President Harriette Chandler said her office also was studying options for amending the law.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association, said his group was not surprised by the SJC ruling and had previously discussed alternatives to a total ban. He said he'd favour adding stun guns to the list of firearms, including handguns, for which residents must obtain a license to carry from their local police chiefs.