Maryland cannot enforce a law requiring people to get a license before they can buy a handgun, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday, undoing a signature gun control measure that lawmakers passed more than a decade ago after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The state’s law requires people who want to buy a handgun to first submit fingerprints for a background investigation and take a firearms safety training course, among other measures. Those are obligatory steps for obtaining a handgun qualification license, or HQL.
In a 2-1 opinion, Judge Julius N. Richardson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit wrote that the law cannot stand under a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that a firearm regulation is unconstitutional unless the government can show it is consistent with the nation’s historical tradition.
“The challenged law restricts the ability of law-abiding adult citizens to possess handguns, and the state has not presented a historical analogue that justifies its restriction; indeed, it has seemingly admitted that it couldn’t find one,” Richardson wrote in an opinion joined by Judge G. Steven Agee. “Under the Supreme Court’s new burden-shifting test for these claims, Maryland’s law thus fails, and we must enjoin its enforcement.”
Maryland Shall Issue, an organization that seeks to preserve and advance the rights of gun owners, and Atlantic Guns Inc., a gun store, were among those who sued over the requirement for people to obtain a handgun qualification license, alleging that it violated the Second Amendment.
The regulation was one component of Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act of 2013, enacted in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead in Connecticut.
Richardson wrote that the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in a case called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen represented a “sea change in Second Amendment law.”
The law, he wrote, does not prohibit people from owning handguns at some point in the future. But the regulation stops them from owning handguns now.
That’s because people cannot get a handgun qualification license until the state reviews their application, which can take up to 30 days. The regulation “deprives them of that ability until their application is approved, no matter what they do,” Richardson wrote.
Maryland, the judge wrote, also did not meet its burden in showing that there is historical evidence that justifies the law.
In her dissenting opinion, Senior Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote that the majority fundamentally misapplied the Bruen decision and took a “hyperaggressive view of the Second Amendment.”
‘Gratifying’ for gun rights supporters
The ruling represents a victory for gun-rights advocates.
Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue and a lawyer for the group, testified before lawmakers back in 2013 that he thought the handgun license was unconstitutional.
“I told them then, in written and oral testimony, it was unconstitutional. They didn’t believe me then, so we filed suit,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see that I was correct.”
Pennak said gun owners support some measures, such as background checks. But the requirements to get a handgun qualification license were too onerous, he said.
There are only so many places in the state that offer the training course and the opportunity to fire a live round, he said. Some areas in the state have no gun ranges, so prospective owners have to drive elsewhere to meet the live-fire requirement.
“It’s a big win for the fundamental rights of Marylanders to acquire a handgun for self-defense,” Pennak said.
Gun safety advocates say ruling is ‘misguided’
While Pennak’s group was celebrating, advocates of gun control decried the court’s opinion.
Brian Frosh, who shepherded the law to passage as a state senator in 2013 and later defended it as attorney general, said the 4th Circuit opinion “is so wrongheaded it defies description.”
Frosh said the court refused to consider the goal of the legislation, which was to ensure that dangerous people don’t obtain handguns and those who do own them know how to operate them safely.
“It’s not just that they failed to use a wide-angle lens to look at the policy that underlies the law. It’s that they look through the wrong end of the telescope at it,” said Frosh, who is now retired.
Even considering the new standard for evaluating gun laws under Bruen, the court was still wrong, Frosh said.
“It’s another in a line of decisions that will result in more death, more injuries, more suicides, and to what end?” Frosh asked. “So that folks can get a gun the day they walk into a store? And nobody has an opportunity to decide whether they will be a threat to their spouses, to their children, to their families, to society at large if they get one.”
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore issued a statement saying he was disappointed.
“This law is not about stripping away rights from responsible gun owners — it’s about every Marylander having the right to live free from fear,” Moore, a Democrat, said in the statement.
Moore said he would “continue to fight for this law” but said his team was examining the ruling and evaluating their options. The state could ask the full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case or appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
In a statement, Jennifer Donelan, a spokesperson for the Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown, said, “We are weighing options for next steps in this case, which prevents us from any further comment at this point.”
Everytown Law, the legal arm of the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, immediately panned the ruling as “a dangerous and misguided decision.”
“Requiring handgun purchasers to pass a background check and undergo gun safety training prior to purchasing a gun is not only common sense, it is entirely consistent with the Second Amendment and the new test established by the Bruen decision,” William Taylor, a deputy director with Everytown Law, said in a statement.
Everytown expressed confidence that the decision will be overturned.
It’s not clear yet whether state lawmakers will respond to the ruling by addressing handgun licensing when they convene their next legislative session in January. But Democratic leaders were frustrated with the ruling.
”Today’s decision is crazy,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement. “Every responsible gun owner supports basic firearm training and keeping guns out of criminals’ hands. This decision will unequivocally lead to more gun violence and firearm-related deaths.”
House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she was disappointed in the ruling. Both Jones and Ferguson voted for the law when it was passed in 2013.
“The Second Amendment permits reasonable restrictions on the right to own a firearm,” Jones said in a statement. “We will review the opinion and consider all our options to protect Marylanders.”
This story has been updated.