Critics are blasting a Massachusetts city’s new law that they claim requires residents applying for a license to carry handguns to write “an essay” and pay upwards of $1,100 for training.

The new laws take effect this week in Lowell, a city of 110,000 that lies 35 miles north of Boston. Pushed by Police Superintendent William Taylor and passed by the City Council, they require applicants for unrestricted handgun licenses to state in writing why they should receive such a license. Taylor, who was unavailable for comment on Monday, has sole discretion for approving or denying the applications.

“It is absurd that people should have to write an essay to the town to explain why they should be able to exercise their constitutional rights,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts. “We already have a very strict set of gun laws in the state, but this is way over the top.”

“It is absurd that people should have to write an essay to the town to explain why they should be able to exercise their Constitutional rights.”

- Jim Wallace, Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts.

State law sets guidelines and requirements, but gives local chiefs of police broad discretion in implementation. While other cities and towns in Massachusetts have tough licensing regulations, Lowell’s new requirements, which also include taking a gun safety course over and above one already required by the state, prompted complaints at a public hearing last week.

"I will never write an essay to get my rights as an American citizen," resident Dan Gannon told the City Council.

The new policy was prompted in part by a year-old federal lawsuit brought by Commonwealth Second Amendment, a Bay State gun-rights group. Attorney David Jensen said the suit stems from Lowell’s history of denying qualified applicants permits to carry handguns without what the plaintiffs consider a legitimate rationale.

Jensen said the jury is still out on whether the new policy will prove a remedy or just a more formal system for rejecting applications.

“The question right now is what they actually do,” Jensen said. “Our initial response to that would be that the Second Amendment secures the right to keep and bear arms. You really shouldn’t be required to write an essay explaining why you would like to exercise this fundamental right.”

Lowell Police spokesman Capt. Timothy Crowley said characterizing the written requirement as an “essay” is not accurate.

“If you want a license to carry a firearm unrestricted wherever you want and whenever you want, the superintendent is just looking for some documentation as to why,” Crowley said. “That is not unreasonable to most people.”

Local attorney Richard Chambers, who often represents applicants who have been turned down, said calling the new requirement an "essay" is right on target.

"An essay when you're in school is when you write something, you turn it in and they grade it," Chambers said. "This is an essay. And it's also just another layer of bureaucracy they've tacked on to block people from exercising their rights."

Despite the criticism, the new rules were adopted unanimously and are set to take effect this week.

"We're no longer taking a cookie-cutter approach to issuing firearms licenses," City Manager Kevin Murphy told the Lowell Sun, noting that the new policy will allow Taylor to look more closely at each applicant.

That’s exactly what concerns Wallace, who urged Lowell residents not to adhere to the new rules and to simply turn to the courts if and when their applications are denied.

“It’s like having a college professor say, ‘I’m going to read your essay and if I don’t like it, I’m going to give it back to you,’” Wallace said.

A 1998 state law known as the Gun Control Act included a raft of new regulations, fees and requirements that contributed to an 80 percent reduction in gun licenses over time, according to Wallace. The new law in Lowell, which Taylor said has about 6,000 gun owners with licenses to carry, will require a specialized training course.

A local firearms-safety instructor, Randy Breton, told the Sun the training requirement appeared designed to purposely make it cost-prohibitive to apply for a gun permit. He said one five-day course approved by the city costs $1,100.

"It's beyond ridiculous," Breton told the newspaper.