The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a man's conviction for discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a building - more specifically in his case, for accidentally shooting a pal in the bedroom of his father's house by pulling the trigger on what he thought was an empty gun as he was putting it away.
Michael Kelly, who had hoped to sell the gun to the friend, argued that state law requires a showing of what the legal world calls mens reas - that he intended to pull the trigger and shoot his friend.
But in its ruling, the state's highest arbiter of the local legal world ruled: Nope.
The law that bans firing a gun near - or in - a building doesn't require intent and so the fresh hole in the friend's hand, inside a house, was proof that Kelly had, in fact, fired a gun closer to a building than state law allows.
Kelly, who split his time between Maine and his father's house in Natick, was in Natick on Jan. 20, 2013 in part to watch the Patriots play the Ravens for the AFC championship with several friends (the Patriots lost). One of those friends was possibly interested in buying his gun - for which he did not have a Massachusetts license, although his father did.
At some point during the game, Kelly and the friend went up to a bedroom, where Kelly showed him the gun, which he had earlier taken out of its protective case, the court said in its summary of the facts.
He handed the firearm to the victim, who soon handed it back. The defendant and a police lieutenant both testified that the design of the firearm required the user to depress the trigger to disassemble the weapon. Believing that the chamber was empty, the defendant depressed the trigger in order to disassemble the firearm; this discharged a bullet, which struck the victim in the hand.
The victim was taken to MetroWest Medical Center in Natick, but was ultimately transferred to Mass. General, where he underwent five separate operations to try to repair the damage to his hand. Kelly was fined - and received a suspended sentence on his conviction for illegal possession of a firearm. He was not charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, however.
In considering the case, the justices acknowledged that, in general, state criminal laws do require some notion of intent and knowledge of the crime being committed for a conviction - even if they don't specifically refer to the mens rea concept in their wording.
But not all do, the justices continued.
Among those: Crimes with relatively light potential penalties. And the state law on firing a gun near a building, which has no mention of intent, is one of them - it calls for, at most, a $100 fine and up to three months in jail, the court wrote.
And that's in addition to the fact that some laws are not meant to penalize just actions - such as shooting a gun in a bedroom - but to "criminalize conduct that has not necessarily caused harm but is 'potentially harmful or injurious.'
The law barring the discharge of a firearm within 500 feet of a building fell in this category, the court said.
It pointed to a 2009 case, in which it held that "firearms do not cause harm merely by existing:"
Rather, when firearms are discharged, they create a risk of harm. It is important to note that the statute at issue here only criminalizes discharges within 500 feet of a dwelling or building in use, not within 500 feet of any building. ... This indicates that the Legislature intended to reduce the risk of injuries to people who might be nearby, a risk that regrettably came to fruition here. The statute is consistent with a public welfare offense because it punishes risky behavior, not behavior that necessarily has caused a harm.
And even if, as Kelly's lawyer argued, the gun that fired had a terrible design - really, requiring the owner to depress the trigger to disassemble it? - that didn't absolve Kelly for his actions, because there were any number of steps he could have taken to keep from shooting his friend, starting with not taking the gun out of the case in the first place.
There were many precautions that the defendant could have taken to avoid the subsequent accidental discharge.
So, guilty on that count, the court concluded.
But what about the Second Amendment? Although Kelly's attorney did not detail a Second Amendment case in his legal brief with the court, he did refer to the amendment, so the justices also considered whether the state ban on discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a building is unconstitutional.
But the court promptly shot down that issue as well, in part because the state law in question absolves people who either fire a gun in "lawful defense of life and property," or when the owner of the building in question has given permission, and neither was the case here: Kelly did not shoot to protect himself or the house, and the owner of the house, Kelly's father, testified he had not given his son permission to shoot a gun on the property.
The court continued that the 2008 Heller decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that individuals had the right to bear arms, makes a distinction between laws that would prevent somebody from arming himself for self defense and other laws related to guns that would not. Prohibiting the discharge of a firearm within 500 feet of an occupied building, with an exemption for self defense, is not barred by the Heller decision, the court concluded.