By: Tiana Cherry

On October 30, 2015, three plaintiffs jointly filed an appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts after the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that Village Gun Shop, Inc. (“Gun Shop”), which collected firearms from the plaintiffs and charged the plaintiffs storage fees for holding the guns when the plaintiffs’ failed to transfer their ownership to another individual or business, was not liable for damages as a state actor.[1] The First Circuit upheld the district court’s decision and found that Gun Shop in Massachusetts could not be held liable as a state actor for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2]

Under Massachusetts state law, an individual who wishes to own or possess a firearm in his residence or place of business must obtain a Firearms Identification Card (“FID”).[3] However, if that FID owner presents “a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse,” the court must order that person to surrender all of his firearms and his FID card when the court issues an abuse prevention order against the person.[4] The Massachusetts law also requires firearms and the FID card to be confiscated if an FID card expires.[5] Once the FID card and the firearms have been confiscated, the owner of the firearms may arrange for the firearms to be transferred or sold to any person with a valid FID card or other firearms license for one year after the date of surrender.[6] If the firearm’s owner does not transfer their ownership, the police “may transfer possession of such weapon[s] for storage purposes to a federally and state licensed dealer of such weapons and ammunition who operates a bonded warehouse.”[7] The dealer then gives the owner an inventory and stores the items, but the gun owner becomes liable for all “reasonable storage charges,” unless he transfers the firearms to a person with a valid FID card.[8]

In the present case, each of the three plaintiffs’ FID cards and firearms were confiscated by police officers.[9] First, plaintiff James Jarvis’ FID card and firearms were confiscated because his guns were seen in plain sight of police officers when he was arrested for domestic assault and battery.[10] Second, plaintiff Robert Crampton’s firearms and FID card were confiscated because his firearms were seen in plain sight of police officers and police officers discovered that Crampton’s FID card was expired after they arrived to Crampton’s home to investigate a burglary.[11] Last, a non-profit corporation called Commonwealth Second Amendment, Inc. is a plaintiff that “expends significant resources assisting those people whose firearms are held by bonded warehouses under the authority of [Massachusetts law].”[12] All three plaintiffs claimed that they were deprived of their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process because they were forced to pay storage charges and were permanently deprived of their property without proper notice and opportunity to be heard.[13] As a remedy, the plaintiffs sought a ruling that Gun Shop was a state actor that could be held liable for damages under section 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[14]

The Court used three distinct tests to determine whether the Gun Shop could be held liable as a state actor.[15] A state action may be found if the private party: (1) “assumed a traditional public function when performing the challenged conduct;” (2) “coerced or significantly encouraged [conduct] by the state;” or (3) the state became so intertwined with the private party that they were effectively “joint participant[s]” in the challenged conduct.[16] Here, the Court determined that the first test did not apply because the Gun Shop “wholly owns the facility in which it operates its business.”[17] The second test did not apply because there was no evidence that the Gun Shop depended on the state for day-to-day operation of its business.[18] Lastly, the third test did not apply because there was no relationship between the state and the Gun Shop other than the law authorizing police officers to transfer the firearms to the Gun Shop, which also requires owners to be put on notice of their right to transfer ownership.[19]

All three judges concurred in this decision and summarized the case succinctly.[20] The judges explain that there is no need to further analyze the case because the plaintiffs only appealed the claim for damages related to their payment to the storage facilities and did not challenge police officers’ confiscation of their firearms, which fails to give rise of a state action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[21]

Although the plaintiffs’ argument failed to demonstrate a significant relationship between the police officers’ confiscation of firearms and the Gun Shop, this law has a broader implication on the Massachusetts society. If police officers maintained an established relationship with one particular firearm storage facility with whom the officers turned over the majority of the firearms it confiscated, it is likely that the business’ day-to-day operations would profit from charging owners to store firearms. This could be considered a lucrative business for some storage facilities and could potentially cause a dependency on the Massachusetts law for the business’ survival.

[1] Jarvis v. Gill Gun Shop, Inc., 2015 BL 358098 (1st Cir. Oct. 30, 2015).

[2] See Redondo-Borges v. U.S. Dep’t of Hous. & Urban Dev., 421 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2005) (stating that “Section 1983 supplies a private right of action against any person who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights secured by the Constitution or by federal law.”

[3] See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §§ 129B, 131(d), (f), (i).

[4] See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 209A, § 3B.

[5] See id. § 129B(12).

[6] See id. § 129D.

[7] See id.

[8] See id.

[9] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at *2-3.

[10] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 2.

[11]Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 3.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 4.

[15] Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 932 (1982).

[16] Santiago v. Puerto Rico, 655 F.3d 61, 67 (1st Cir. 2011).

[17] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 5.

[18] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 6.

[19] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 5.

[20] Jarvis, 2015 BL 358098 at * 10.

[21] Id.

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