A spokesman for the National Rifle Association in Maryland said Tuesday that his organization would not be opposed to requiring people to get a license before purchasing a handgun — as long as the licensing fees were reasonable.
I was surprised to hear Matt Daley say this on my radio show Tuesday afternoon because most of the gun-rights advocates I've heard from are opposed to licensure — period. They say it violates the Constitution.
So I checked the recording of my conversation with Daley to make sure I heard him correctly.
I also asked the other person who was sitting in WYPR's studio at the time — Casey Anderson, spokesman for Maryland Against Gun Violence — and he says he heard what I heard. We heard something approaching reasonable, a concession from an organization that usually concedes nothing.
Let's go over this.
Daley is second vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, the state's NRA arm. He is in charge of legislative affairs, which means he's the lobbyist.
Now, one of the most controversial aspects of Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun-control proposals is the licensing of people to buy a handgun. To get a license, you'd have to get some training in the use of firearms, and submit to digital fingerprinting and a police background check.
Gun-rights advocates complain that the licensing requirement would infringe on the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
I devoted last Thursday's column to refuting that contention, quoting three constitutional scholars, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Numerous gun owners responded with vigor — and some with anger — saying, essentially: "I don't need a license to exercise my right."
That was the objection I expected Daley to raise Tuesday. Instead, he led with a complaint about the cost of getting licensed.
"You need to consider that getting the license in Maryland would cost you between $400 to $500," he said. "That's composed of a mandatory $100 license fee, an application fee, which is nonrefundable; your fingerprint fees will run between $90 and $100. The required instruction is going to run close to $100. The fee to access Maryland criminal records that you would be required to pay — and the fee to pay for processing by the FBI for a national criminal records check — is also a part of that figure. ...
"So when we look at this license, we see this as something that, whether it was designed to or not, will have the effect of disenfranchising a very large segment of otherwise law-abiding citizens here in Maryland. It's the modern-day equivalent of a poll tax. We find that unacceptable."
I asked Daley whether the NRA would be opposed to the license if the fee were reasonable — if the state cut it down to, say, $25.
"Reduce the fees to $25 — sure, no problem," he said.
Really? That wasn't the answer I had anticipated.
"We understand and appreciate that you need to have checks to try and keep firearms out of the hands of the wrong people," Daley said. "The question becomes: How do you reconcile society's legitimate concern about that with the individual rights of firearms owners?"
I pressed Daley once more: His organization is not opposed to licensure; it opposes the costs?
"We're opposed to the fees and to the unnecessarily bureaucratic and complicated process that's encapsulated in the licensing requirement," he said.
Daley said the licensing process could be a lot easier.
"When a person goes in to fill out the forms at a federally licensed firearms dealer, just have them put the thumbprint on the application. That's sufficient to run the checks. ... You don't need two different copies of digital fingerprints to do that."
So the objection is to digital fingerprinting as opposed to the old-fashion, inky-thumb method?
If we skipped the digital — and I'm not saying we should — Daley wouldn't object to the gun license?
"If there were a different proposal on the table, we'd look at it," he said.
Forgive this head-scratcher of a column. I just didn't expect to hear the NRA give any kind of ground. Neither did Anderson of Maryland Against Gun Violence.
"I was glad to hear that Matt was on the same page with us on a lot of these proposals, at least in principle," Anderson said. "We have no problem with the idea that the costs [of licensure] should be reasonable."
But what's reasonable?
The proposed license fee is $100. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services charges $34.50 for a combined state-federal background check for prospective employees, and $20 for fingerprinting. An NRA "basic pistol" class costs between $130 and $150.
Looks to me that a handgun license could cost up to $300.
So maybe we bring that cost down a bit, with the state subsidizing the licensure program, and we keep the requirements — training, background check, digital fingerprints.
That sounds like something approaching reasonable.