Maryland concealed carry permit rules to relax next month

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It will become a lot easier to obtain permits to conceal and carry guns in Maryland as of Aug. 7 under a court order filed Tuesday by a federal district judge.

The order signed Monday by Judge Benson E. Legg gives state officials two weeks to implement his March ruling striking down a requirement that concealed carry applicants show a "good and substantial reason" to transport a firearm.

The requirement prevented many from applying for permits, according to gun proponents who expect tens of thousands of state residents to seek — and be granted — such licenses. There are about 12,000 active carry permits in Maryland.

The shift comes amid nationwide concerns about access to guns, after a well-armed shooter inexplicably opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last week, killing 12 people and injuring 58.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office is appealing the change and could, before Aug. 7, ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., to delay it until its case is decided.

Daniel Vice, a senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, called the change to Maryland's policy a "reckless ruling that threatens public safety," by arming those "like the Colorado shooter, who had committed no crime until he shot 70 people." The alleged shooter reportedly purchased his guns legally and would have been eligible for a concealed carry permit under that state's law.

But Alan Gura, who represents the gun-rights group Second Amendment Foundation and argued the case that altered Maryland law, said the problem is not permit holders, who are largely law-abiding. "The problem is that, regrettably, there are going to be criminals and crazy people," bent on destruction, he said.

Gura applauded Tuesday's order, which will set in motion the widened access to gun permits in the state if allowed to stand. "It makes Maryland into a normal part of America," he said. "This is the way that the law operates in [most] other states."

Before the ruling, Maryland was among a handful of states that followed a "may issue" policy for gun-carry permits, leaving the distribution of licenses up to the discretion of local authorities after basic criteria are met: The state bars dangerous felons and addicts, for example.

State applicants were also required to show a "good and substantial reason" for carrying a gun, such as transporting cash for business or working in a high-risk profession, such as law enforcement officers and armored car personnel.

Legg's March decision said the Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms is "is all the reason [an applicant] needs." The ruling turns Maryland into a "shall issue" state, like most, which automatically issue gun-carry permits once safety conditions are met.

Attorneys for the state had asked Legg to delay the change, but the judge denied the request for a stay in Tuesday's order.

"If a stay is granted, a sizeable number of people will be precluded from exercising, while the case is argued on appeal, what this court has recognized as a valid aspect of their Second Amendment right," Legg wrote in an eight-page memorandum opinion. He noted that the Supreme Court has said the loss of certain constitutional freedoms for even "minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury."

State police, who oversee the gun-carry permitting process, routinely deny gun-carry permit applications without the "good and substantial" showing, and officials plan to continue the denials until they're forced to do otherwise Aug. 7 or granted a reprieve by the federal appeals court, according to a statement released Tuesday.

If the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals does not intervene to stay the ruling but overturns it later, the permits granted to those without good and substantial reasons for carrying a weapon would likely be revoked.

The permit policy change grew from a lawsuit filed by Baltimore County resident Raymond Woollard. He was issued a gun carry permit in 2003 after his son-in-law broke into his home on Christmas Eve and terrorized the family, according to court records. It was renewed in 2006 but denied three years later because Woollard could not show a continuing threat.

Woollard sued with the support of the Second Amendment Foundation, contending that the rejection was unconstitutional, and Legg ruled in his favor. The judge found that Maryland's "good and substantial reason" requirement had no purpose other than to limit the number of guns on the street and that it "impermissibly infringes the right to keep and bear arms" as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

The ruling was praised by gun-rights advocates, who called it overdue and said it would have a deterrent effect on crime by enabling law-abiding citizens to defend themselves. But some gun opponents predicted a rise in criminal activity and shootouts in the streets, saying the ruling makes it easier to carry a gun legally.

In the memorandum accompanying his Tuesday order, Legg rejected the notion that gun permitting has an accompanying effect on crime. "The inescapable conclusion ... is that the evidence does not point strongly in any one direction," he wrote.

In Baltimore, where gun violence is a persistent concern, police say they're not worried about the change.

"Overwhelmingly, the violence in Baltimore is associated with ... guns sold illegally on the streets" as part of the drug trade, said Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "Our focus has been on illegal guns, people who don't have gun permits. ... That's what our war has been against."

But gun opponents such as Vice question why the state should risk the instances in which permit holders have committed gun crimes. Nationally, more than 400 people have been killed by holders of concealed carry licenses in the past few years, he said.

The other side, meanwhile, raises questions about the risks to permit holders from street criminals.

"Judge Legg's order will remove the loophole in Maryland law that the state has used to deny Maryland citizens the means to exercise the same natural right of self-defense enjoyed by citizens in most of the states," John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president for the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, said in a statement.

Arguments in the federal appeals case could be heard this year.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

SOURCE: Government Accountability Office, July 2012 report

Concealed carry permits by the numbers

118 million: Number of handguns owned by U.S. citizens or legally for sale in 2010

8 million: Number of active concealed-carry permits in the U.S. as of Dec. 31

49: Number of states that allow people to carry concealed handguns as of March (Illinois does not, nor does the District of Columbia)

40: Number of "shall issue" gun carry permit states, including Maryland, in which authorities are required to issue permits to applicants who meet objective statutory criteria

9: Number of "may issue" states, which leave permit issuance up to the discretion of local authorities

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