The attack on Maryland's gun laws

Our view: A federal judge finds the state's limit on handgun permits unconstitutional in a win for the NRA crowd but a potential loss for public safety

March 06, 2012

Maryland's restrictions on carrying a handgun outside the home have been among the strongest in the nation — and for good reason, given the death and destruction perpetrated by those possessing handguns in this state. So it is regrettable that the standard is now under threat because a federal judge, emboldened by a pair of recent Supreme Court decisions that have expanded the reach of the Second Amendment, has found a portion of the law unconstitutional.

Make no mistake, U.S. District Court Judge Benson Everett Legg is pushing the Second Amendment envelope in his 23-page opinion that an existing restriction on handgun carry permits — that the applicant must show a "good and substantial reason" to have one — infringes on the individual's right to keep and bear arms. He admits as much in his decision.

The foundation the judge uses, the Supreme Court's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. City of Chicago in 2010, spoke chiefly to the regulations of firearms inside the home. While we disagreed with those opinions and the activist court's departure from the long-held view of the Second Amendment as a collective right in favor of its conferring an individual right, it's not shocking that the boundaries would be pushed even further.

Maryland is not the only battlefield upon which this Second Amendment war is being waged. New York and New Jersey have had their similarly restrictive handgun carry laws challenged in federal court as well — although in both instances, judges have stood by existing statutes. Permit restrictions in a handful of other states are under constitutional challenge, too.

And while the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment absolutists are no doubt cheered by the decision, their victory is modest and temporary at best. Judge Legg did not order the state to grant a permit to any Tom, Dick or Harry who walks in the door. His qualm was with Maryland's requirement that applicants demonstrate a "good and substantial" reason for needing to carry a gun outside the home. Other restrictions, including a Maryland State Police criminal background check, are not at issue.

What appears to offend Judge Legg is the specter of a "rationing" of permits. Clearly, he believes the state bears the burden of demonstrating why a person is undeserving to carry a handgun in public rather than the applicant having to justify his or her need for one.

It's entirely possible that the Maryland statute could be rewritten in a manner that meets the judge's requirements without resulting in a flood of additional permits. Language could be crafted that is far more specific and where the foundation in public safety is made clear. But it's far too early to even discuss such a reform in the General Assembly, given that the ruling is now headed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and could face years of legal wrangling.

Still, what's troubling about the ruling is the judge's failure to recognize just how great a threat handguns pose to the citizens of Maryland and how putting more loaded weapons on the street is only going to exacerbate that problem. Even the case that landed the issue before Judge Legg is hardly a convincing argument for loosening the carry standards.

The decision not to renew Raymond Woollard's handgun permit was hardly a "random" enforcement. The Baltimore County resident did once use a gun for self-defense — a shotgun, in his home, and it was turned against him by his son-in-law. The state did allow him to carry a handgun for six years after the incident but eventually determined that he was no longer threatened and chose not to renew his permit, as his "good and substantial reason" had faded away over time.

Nothing in Maryland law would keep Mr. Woollard from owning a handgun, or a shotgun for that matter, and using it to defend his home. But carrying a loaded handgun into a street or other public place is another matter that has the potential to affect many other lives, and the state legislature determined long ago that the epidemic of gun violence in Baltimore and elsewhere requires some sensible limitations.

It would be nice to think that everyone who gets a handgun permit is an honest, upstanding citizen interested only in self-defense. Unfortunately, that doesn't square with the facts. One recent study by the Violence Policy Center documents 11 law enforcement officers killed in a two-year period by people using handguns who either had a permit for the concealed weapon or did not need one. The same study cited 30 murder-suicides under the same circumstances between 2007 and 2009.

But such arguments seldom appease those who believe the Second Amendment knows no bounds. Yet even in Heller, the Supreme Court found that some limits apply outside the home. The question is whether public safety needs outweigh individual interests. We think Maryland had already struck the appropriate balance for its circumstances by severely restricting handgun carry permits. We can only hope that the courts will eventually recognize that fact, too.

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