After a judge dismissed criminal charges against an Ipswich gun dealer whose recently released convict son walked out of the store with two guns kept in unlocked boxes out back, the dealer sued the town's police for malicious prosecution and defamation.
In a ruling today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court suggests he should have left well enough alone and been happy he had the charges dismissed, because a state law does too require gun dealers to store guns with the same care as owners and gun clubs.
At issue were the two guns that Stephen Goudreau took out of storage at the rear of the gun shop his father John co-owned with another man in 2014. After the younger Goudreau failed to return the guns, the dealers reported the stolen guns to police, who, after an investigation, charged Goudreau with two counts of improper storage of a firearm. A district-court judge, however, dismissed the charges, agreeing with Goudreau that the law, which does not specifically mention gun dealers, did not apply to them.
Two years later, Goudreau sued the town police chief and the lieutenant who led the investigation, saying he should never have been charged because police had no probable cause to charge him and ruin his business. A Superior Court judge then agreed with the town to dismiss the case, because even if the officers were wrong about the law in question, they were acting in good faith, specifically, that "an objectively reasonable police officer could have believed that there was probable cause to charge Goudreau" under the state law. Goudreau appealed that ruling only as it pertained to the lieutenant's personal liability for the damages he claimed he incurred.
The initial judge was wrong, the appeals court ruled today: While true that the law does not specifically mention gun dealers as being among those required to store guns in "a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device," neither does it specifically exempt them.
The law states it applies to "any firearm," but provides exemptions for antique guns, for law-enforcement and government officers and for guns being used in certain particular ways.
"None of those exemptions are for gun dealers" and so common sense would lead one to believe that because the legislature did not expressly exempt gun dealers in the law, they are therefore covered by it just like everybody else, the court said.
And if the law does apply to gun dealers, then police had probable cause to charge Goudreau with a violation and so the whole qualified-immunity question becomes moot, the court continued.
The court also rejected his argument that because the store had security cameras, a door lock and "the constant presence of employees," that the entire store was itself a giant "secure container," and so even if you accept that the law applies to gun dealers, this dealer did everything it could to prevent a man with multiple felony convictions from walking out with two guns.
The court reasoned that given that the younger Goudreau, not legally allowed to own guns anymore, was able to go into an unsecured area of the store and grab a couple of guns, and the security cameras were not of much help since the theft went undiscovered for two days, police had reason to bring charges under a law aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.