Md.'s handgun restrictions make us safer

Our view: Gansler was right to seek a stay on a ruling that would have allowed thousands of weapons on the streets; even in well-intentioned hands, they put the public at risk

August 04, 2012

Thanks to a federal appellate judge, Maryland avoids a deluge of requests next week for permits to carry concealed handguns in public. The state has long required that those who want a permit to carry a weapon not only meet some basic criteria — no felons, no mental illness, no alcoholism or drug addiction — but also show a "good and substantial reason" for carrying a gun. Federal District Court Judge Benson Legg, charting new territory in 2nd Amendment jurisprudence, struck the restriction down and ruled that the state must start granting permits without it beginning on Aug. 7. Although the number of applicants who have been denied permits on those grounds is relatively small, gun advocates believe the existence of the restriction has had a chilling effect and that many thousands would come forward as soon as it is dropped.

Attorney GeneralDouglas F. Gansleris appealing Judge Legg's decision, and he successfully sought a stay on its effect. He had good reason to do so. Maryland has too many guns on the street as it is, and adding thousands more — even if they are carried by well-intentioned people who don't plan to break the law — would only imperil public safety. The state has a legal right and a compelling interest to regulate the possession of firearms outside the home, and the "good and substantial" restriction has served it well.

Gun rights advocates disagree with the notion that limiting the ability of law-abiding citizens to carry weapons in public makes society safer. Initial research suggested that a switch from a "may issue" regulatory regime, like Maryland has, to a "shall issue" system was associated with a drop in some violent crimes, the theory being that criminals would be deterred if they thought it more likely that their victims might be armed. But subsequent studies have called that into question, with some recent research reaching the opposite conclusion.

Either way, Maryland's restrictions are no panacea. The man who killed a dozen people and injured scores more at a Colorado movie theater would not have been hindered at all by Maryland's restrictions. Nor has the restriction on concealed-carry had a demonstrable effect on the primary engine of violence in Maryland, the illegal drug trade in Baltimore City. Drug dealers do not care whether they have a license to carry a gun or not.

However, there remains good reason to believe that a system that makes the legal possession of a weapon in public a rarity serves Maryland well. The presence of a firearm, even in the hands of someone with the best intentions, increases the risk that an ordinary confrontation will turn deadly. Handguns are frequently stolen in robberies and can be turned on their owners or wind up in the hands of criminals. Indeed, that is a primary source for the firearms used in the drug trade. The profusion of handguns in public increases the likelihood that they will be discharged accidentally and injure or kill innocent people. Gun rights advocates fancy that a well armed populace will discourage criminals, but those who would carry concealed weapons legally rarely have the kind of training necessary to use them properly, safely and effectively during violent confrontations. And putting more guns on the street makes it harder for police officers to know who the bad guys are, at best reducing their effectiveness and at worst leading to tragic results.

Don't take our word for it. Ask Frederick Bealefeld III, who retired this week as Baltimore's most successful police commissioner in decades. Or Terrence Sheridan, the former state police superintendent. Or James Johnson, the Baltimore County police chief. The three of them detailed those reasons and more for maintaining the state's current standards in testimony in support of the state's position in the federal case. The "good and substantial reason" standard limits the possession of handguns in public to a small group of people — those whose professions put them at risk or those who have a direct reason to believe they face a specific danger different from the general public — and some of the state's most experienced and respected law enforcement officials believe that makes us safer.

For that reason alone, Mr. Gansler is right to appeal Judge Legg's decision and was right to urge that its effect be stayed while the case is considered. Second Amendment law is somewhat unsettled after a pair of recent Supreme Court decisions that stretched traditional understandings of its meaning, but the high court has recognized the propriety of some restriction on the possession of firearms outside the home, and there remains a substantial likelihood that the state will prevail. If so, gun permits issued in the interim could have been revoked, but there is no telling what damage could have been done in the meantime.

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