Mass. Boasts First Electronic Fingerprinting for Gun Licensing

BOSTON (AP) -- With a quick electronic scan of a fingerprint, gun shop owners in Massachusetts will know immediately if a customer is eligible to buy a weapon, using a system that officials say is the first of its kind in the nation.

The Massachusetts Instant Record Check System, developed over the past six years with nearly $7 million in technology grant money, will be in place in all police departments and gun shops across the state by next summer. It is currently operating in three shops and about 140 police departments.

The system gives police and gun-shop owners instant access to updated information about arrest warrants and restraining orders which was not readily accessible under the old paperwork-intensive system.

"It represents a real quantum leap in public-safety information-technology applications," said Public Safety Secretary Ed Flynn, who planned to unveil the new system Wednesday at the Four Seasons Firearms shop in Woburn.

"This enables us to make sure that the only people bearing arms in the commonwealth have the right to bear arms," he said.

With the system, Massachusetts becomes the first state in the nation with a biometric-based firearms license and sales application, Flynn said. Biometrics are physical identifiers, such as facial photographs and fingerprints.

Gun owners have long complained that the process of getting a license is cumbersome and time-consuming, often taking weeks or months.

Under the old system, individual police departments are the licensing authority. They have to take a fingerprint manually and paste a photograph onto a gun license.

Under the new system, local police will still be the licensing authority, but fingerprints and photographs will be taken electronically and stored in the statewide system. The license will be produced by the state's Criminal History Systems Board and fit into a wallet, much like a driver's license.

Philip Mahoney, police chief in Woburn, one of the first communities in the state to test the system, said one of the biggest benefits is knowing immediately if a person licensed through that city has become ineligible. Under the old system, a person's criminal history would only be updated after the license expired, or if police happened to learn of an arrest.

"Until he came in for renewal, we would not have had any knowledge of that," Mahoney said. "Now it would be an automatic suspension."

That would also show up at a gun shop. For example, if a restraining order is issued at midnight against someone with a gun license, that license record would be updated. If that person tried to buy a weapon the next day, he would be denied.

It also eliminates paperwork for gun-shop owners, who now have to pay 50 cents per form per gun, and alert the state of each sale.

"You hit the button. Before the customer leaves the store, the state knows they purchased that firearm," said Carl Ingrao, owner of Four Seasons Firearms in Woburn.

The new electronic system is in addition to a federal instant check that is conducted by telephone before a weapon sale is completed. The state is working with federal authorities to further streamline that process.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said the state had not involved gun owners in the development of the technology. But he was looking forward to Flynn's demonstration and hopeful the system would cut down on the wait and paperwork for licensing.

"We don't support licensing anyway, but it's a fact of life here in Massachusetts," Wallace said, "and if you're going to mandate it, you better provide it."