Those who promote the right to carry around a handgun in public were no doubt disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this week not to take up Maryland's handgun permit law. Certainly quite a few could be found sharing their rather disparaging views of the nation's highest court in colorful language on the Internet, including at baltimoresun.com.
But what they should not be is surprised. While opponents of the Maryland law enjoyed a brief victory when a U.S. District Court judge found it violated the Second Amendment last year, that decision hinged on an overly broad view of District of Columbia V. Heller, the 2008 landmark Supreme Court case that spoke to the individual's right to own and bear firearms within the home.
Maryland can't prohibit all guns. That much was made clear in Heller when the high court struck down the District's strict gun law. But Heller doesn't prevent jurisdictions from imposing reasonable restrictions on ownership and conveyance. The court never said that Second Amendment rights were unlimited or absolute.
What Maryland has long required is that handgun owners must demonstrate a "good and substantial reason" to be issued a permit to carry that gun in public. The short-hand description is that Maryland is a "may issue" a gun permit state while many others employ a "shall issue" standard, which makes the issuance of a permit far more routine.
Maryland's law doesn't sit well with gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association or with Raymond Woollard, the Baltimore County resident who sued after he was denied a permit in 2009 by the Maryland State Police. But while it's impossible to know why the Supreme Court declined to take up Mr. Woollard's case (no reasoning is routinely given in such decisions), it's clearly not the slam-dunk Second Amendment violation that NRA lawyers seemed to believe.
That's good news, not only because it affirms Maryland's handgun permit law but because it bodes well for the Maryland Firearm Safety Act, the sweeping gun control law that went into effect Oct. 1 and bans the sale of certain assault-style weapons and large magazines and imposes a licensing requirement on handgun purchases that includes fingerprinting and training.
Opponents have already filed lawsuits against portions of the law, but the challenges appear underwhelming at best. Some elements, such as the fingerprinting requirement, are already used by other states, while others, like the assault weapons ban, seem reasonable on their face as such a restriction does not prevent anyone from owning a gun for self-defense, hunting or target shooting — just not one with a folding stock, muzzle flash suppressor or other features suited for concealment or inflicting mass casualties.
Certainly, it must be acknowledged that U.S. gun laws remain a bit of a moving target and that the limits on how far states or other jurisdictions can go toward setting restrictions are not absolutely certain. But Maryland is clearly not in violation of Heller, and the sooner that gun rights advocates acknowledge that, the better off they'll be.
What they and others should be focused on is looking for ways to reduce gun violence in this country. That last year's massacre in Newtown, Conn. failed to achieve any meaningful reform in Congress was a national disgrace and embarrassment. Polls show this is not an issue that truly divides this country, as a majority of gun owners say they'd like to see these weapons kept out of the hands of criminals and the chronically mentally ill, too.
Action at the federal level may be unlikely, but there are any number of state-level gun control strategies to pursue from improved background checks to better recognition of those who are at high risk of committing acts of violence. What Maryland has put on the books this year marks significant progress in that direction. How much easier would this process of reform be, however, if gun groups could look for common ground on these issues rather than rejecting all forms of gun control in favor of a "a good guy with a gun" mentality?
We can appreciate the strong feelings that some gun owners have on these issues. But we are also increasingly confident that at the end of all this legal skirmishing, they'll still enjoy their fundamental Second Amendment rights, and the likelihood of another Newtown massacre will be modestly diminished.