A decade-old Maryland law requiring would-be handgun owners to submit their fingerprints and undergo four hours of safety training is under fire in federal court, part of a broader national push to curtail gun control measures.

Maryland Shall Issue, a pro-firearms group, and Atlantic Guns, a Montgomery County gun shop, called the state’s Handgun Qualification License program “peculiar and onerous” in court papers, and claimed that it infringes upon law-abiding citizens’ right to keep and bear arms by causing undue delay.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Attorney General Anthony Brown’s administrations disagree —the HQL requirement is designed to stop people who have no business owning a handgun from purchasing one. Maryland is one of a handful of states, including Minnesota, Nebraska, New York and Washington, that require a permit or some sort of safety certification to purchase certain types of firearms.

It takes about two to four weeks for the Maryland State Police to process a HQL application, according to its website. In addition to the HQL, aspiring handgun purchasers have to submit a 77R form for the firearm they wish to own, which allows the state police to run a background check. It takes seven days to process.

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Lawyers for both sides will make their case Thursday morning before the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, the latest hearing in a legal wrangle spanning nearly eight years. While the state’s handgun qualification licensing scheme is immediately at stake, the court’s decision, depending on which way and how aggressively it rules, could have serious implications for any laws restricting gun ownership, experts say.

In November, a three-judge panel issued a split ruling that found the HQL scheme unconstitutional, reversing the district court. The two-judge majority relied on a 2022 Supreme Court case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, which scaled back New York’s concealed-carry laws.

“Maryland has not pointed to any historical laws that operated by preemptively depriving all citizens of firearms to keep them out of dangerous hands,” Appellate Judge Julius Richardson wrote in his November opinion for the majority.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the Bruen case that determined challenges to gun laws should not be evaluated by whether they serve the public good, but if they’re aligned with the nation’s “historical tradition of firearm regulation.” That means courts are to compare current laws with historical analogs from the Revolutionary and post-Civil War Reconstruction eras.

There’s just one problem with the new framework for testing gun laws: neither firearms violence nor firearm technology was as pressing an issue 200 or so years ago as it is now, said Heidi Li Feldman, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. That puts legislatures on the back foot, Feldman said, in large part defeating the purpose of a modern democratic society that passes laws to meet the current moment.

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“When people elect people and send them to the state legislature, I don’t think they’re electing them to act like the Maryland General Assembly in 1782,” she said.

The framework created by Bruen runs the risk of giving more power to the courts than before, Feldman said, allowing political actors on the bench to override democratically elected legislatures.

The gun industry has taken notice, with the Bruen case offering a roadmap to challenge virtually every gun law on the books nationwide, said David Pucino, the deputy chief counsel and legal director for Giffords Law Center, a nonprofit that works to maintain and expand gun laws.

“We’ve seen a scale of challenges to gun laws that’s unprecedented. … There’s been nothing like this,” he said. “Even laws which were settled and there was consensus among the courts have been thrown into question. The gun industry is extraordinarily eager to challenge every law they can.”

Dozens of cases have been filed nationwide since the Bruen decision, Pucino said.

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In a filing opposing rehearing, lawyers for Maryland Shall Issue and Atlantic Guns played down the long-range effects the panel’s decision could have, citing Maryland’s 77R requirement and the need for a concealed-carry permit as evidence public safety wouldn’t be affected.

And even if striking down those laws harmed public safety (the plaintiffs argue they don’t; research shows permitting and licensing laws reduce gun violence), it wouldn’t matter under the Supreme Court’s decision, the gun attorneys wrote.

“Even if this were true, which it is not, Bruen foreclosed lower courts from upholding firearm laws under such rationales, because evidence that a challenged law advances public safety does not ‘justify granting States greater leeway in restricting firearm ownership and use,’ ” they wrote, citing the Bruen decision.

Some members of the 4th Circuit are aware of the magnitude the majority’s November decision would have if it stands. Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, an Obama appointee, cast the lone dissenting vote and wrote of the repercussions in her opinion.

“Simply stated, the majority’s hyper aggressive view of the Second Amendment would render presumptively unconstitutional most non-discretionary laws in this country requiring a permit to purchase a handgun [permitting laws],” Keenan wrote.

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Following the November decision, lawyers for the state successfully petitioned the 4th Circuit for what’s known as an en banc review of the case, which means arguments will be reheard by all 18 judges, who will rule together. En banc reviews are fairly rare and are typically reserved for cases of significance, said Steve Klepper, a veteran Baltimore appellate attorney at the firm Kramon & Graham.

Typically it takes the 4th Circuit about six months to issue a ruling after hearing oral arguments en banc, a review of previous cases shows. And although these hearings are reserved for important issues, granting an en banc review does not necessarily signal a case will be taken up by the Supreme Court, Klepper said.

“The Supreme Court does not take every gun control case,” he said.

It’s possible, even likely, the 4th Circuit doesn’t rule at all on the constitutionality of Maryland’s HQL scheme and instead sends it back to the district court for a rehearing, Feldman said. When the district court first issued a ruling in this case, Bruen had not been decided, so the district court did not consider any historical analogs when making its decision.

Attorneys from Giffords Law Center, joined by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and March for Our Lives, like-minded nonprofits, filed an amicus brief with the court arguing that historical analogs for the restriction of firearm ownership do exist. The groups cited several local and state laws from the 18th and 19th centuries that placed restrictions on who could own guns and the permitting process for possessing them.

“The historical record is abundant in examples of laws focused on lawful and responsible gun ownership, and that’s what the HQL is about,” Pucino said in an interview. “It’s about making sure that guns are owned by people who are responsible with them and who will act lawfully with them.” An amicus brief is a filing submitted by a party with interest or expertise in the matter at hand, and the court does not have to consider it.

Lee O. Sanderlin is an Enterprise Reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Before joining The Banner, he worked at The Baltimore Sun as a reporter covering a wide array of topics, including stories about abusive politicians, sexual abuse, gun violence and legislative issues.

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