NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 19, 2013

Lawsuit alleges gun rights violated

Permits denied based on decades-old marijuana convictions

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — SALISBURY — A local man, with the backing a statewide pro-gun group, has sued the town and its police chief after he was denied a gun permit based on a marijuana possession conviction 40 years ago.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court by Michael Wesson along with Thomas Woods of Natick and Commonwealth Second Amendment Inc., claims that Salisbury and Natick town officials violated the two men’s constitutional rights by denying them access to firearms based on what is now a civil offense rather than a criminal one, according to court documents.

Wesson, 64, was convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession in Maine back in 1973 and paid a $300 fine to resolve the charge without a lawyer. Woods, 51, paid a $10 fine after he was convicted in 1983 for marijuana possession in Virginia. Neither have been convicted of a felony or any disqualifying misdemeanors in any jurisdiction. Furthermore, neither plaintiffs are current drug users or alcohol dependent persons, the complaint reads.

According to the complaint, Massachusetts General Laws prohibits those with a marijuana conviction from being issued gun permits. “Accordingly, Massachusetts has imposed a complete `firearm’ ban on plaintiffs and the entire class of persons convicted of marijuana possession no matter when in history the conviction occurred and without regard for whether that person is not a current user of illegal drugs or drug or alcohol dependent,” the complaint reads.

Attorney Jeffrey T. Scrimo said his clients sued the towns and their police chiefs as a way of clarifying that they have been wrongfully denied their right to bear arms.

“This case is particularly important for both my clients and others who are being denied their Second Amendment rights. I’ve tried, without success, to find cases where any other constitutional rights are denied to citizens for their entire lifetime because they committed a nonviolent, minor misdemeanor in their youth. It’s hard to imagine a situation where an American no longer has freedom of speech or the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, or to vote because they held marijuana in their hands 30 or 40 years earlier,” Scrimo wrote in an email.

Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler confirmed the town and he had been served, but declined to comment on the suit, saying he couldn’t speak to matters pending in court.

According to the complaint, Wesson applied for a permit to purchase with Salisbury police on Jan. 28, but quickly learned his application was denied. In 1993, Wesson applied for a permit, but was also denied due to his 1973 marijuana conviction.

Brent Carlton, president of the Jamaica Plain-based Commonwealth Second Amendment Inc., said the state has not justified its case that Wesson and Woods would be a danger to society if they were allowed to carry firearms.

“This has to be punishment because these people aren’t dangerous and weren’t dangerous before,” Carlton said.

Carlton said neither his organization nor the plaintiffs were angry or upset with town or police officials, saying it’s more a question of state law.

“In all reality, the chiefs are incidental; they are required to deny a permit to these people,” Carlton said.

Part of their argument, according to Carlton, is that had Wesson and Woods been faced with marijuana possession charges after 2008 when the state decriminalized the offense, the two wouldn’t have been denied gun permits.

“There’s a lot of things going on that absolutely make no sense,” Carlton said.

Since its incorporation in summer 2010, the nonprofit Commonwealth Second Amendment Inc, also known as Comm2A, has been a plaintiff in four federal lawsuits regarding the right to bear arms. Its purpose includes educating, researching, publishing and protecting the constitutional right of people to possess and carry firearms. It consists of a five-member board and funds activities through contributions.

On many occasions, clients will approach the agency and state their grievances, Carlton said. Should their plea resonate with the board, they are put in contact with attorneys, he said.

“We know the circumstances for a good challenge, so we keep our eyes open.” Carlton said.