Good ideas start somewhere, and this one started at the most horrible moment of my life.
After five of my colleagues at the Capital Gazette were murdered in our Annapolis newsroom in June 2018, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and his health officer, Nilesh Kalyanaraman, set up a gun violence prevention task force. It came in response to the shootings but also followed my repeated calls for public officials to support a search for solutions.
No gun rights advocates would come near the panel except to picket its meetings and harass its members, arguing this was a preordained attempt at more misguided gun control.
On Tuesday, a federal judge decided they were wrong.
In a first-of-its-kind ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher found Anne Arundel can require any business that sells guns or ammunition to prominently display pamphlets on suicide prevention and conflict resolution. A spokesperson for the county health department said Thursday that her agency is drafting a letter reminding roughly 31 businesses that they must do this or face a $500 fine. One already does it voluntarily.
”In my mind, this opens the door for jurisdictions around the state to do something similar,” said Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien, who sponsored the legislation requiring the pamphlets. “Or perhaps in state law.”
Gallagher’s ruling came in the form of a summary judgment dismissing the First Amendment challenge by Maryland Shall Issue, the state’s leading gun rights group, and four gun shop owners in Glen Burnie, Pasadena and Millersville. In her 31-page ruling, the judge examined the history of the law, the wording of the pamphlets and whether the gun shop owners and the gun rights group suffered any harm before she even got to the claim that Anne Arundel was forcing government speech on them.
Appointed as a magistrate by President Barack Obama but named a judge by President Donald Trump, Gallagher poked holes in every single argument made against the law.
“Ultimately, this case is not about limiting gun ownership or stigmatizing firearms,” she wrote. “This case is about the correlative link between access to firearms and the risk of suicide or violent conflict resolution, and about the County’s ability to take reasonable steps to mitigate that risk. Because the County’s actions do not infringe Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, summary judgment in the County’s favor is warranted.”
Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, said his group would appeal the decision. He said Gallagher ignored the wording of the pamphlets, which he claimed described guns as causing suicide rather than just being a factor that indicates a higher risk.
“This is remarkable,” he said. “In this sort of analysis of the government, Anne Arundel County could force car dealers to have hard disclosures on global warming whenever they sell a car because there’s an association between automobiles and global warming in somebody’s view even though you may disagree with it.”
A crucial part of the judge’s ruling was that the pamphlets are similar to warnings about dangers associated with other commercial products, not caused by them. A handful of counties in four other states are distributing pamphlets, and the Maryland decision sets a precedent because no one else has challenged the idea.
Suicide is the leading form of gun death in the United States. And police will tell you that young men quick to draw a gun as a way to settle an argument comprise another statistic.
The county task force collected data on gun deaths and injuries — which is sometimes difficult to get from state agencies — and developed strategies, as task forces generally do. COVID pushed gun violence from the forefront of discussion on threats to public health.
Rodvien didn’t let go. She became the council’s leading advocate for putting its recommendations into law. In January 2022, she convinced the council to unanimously pass the requirement for pamphlets. It was perhaps the most concrete action to come from the task force’s work so far, although more is coming.
Addressing gun violence as a public health crisis was at the core of the law’s intent, and the legal challenge. Anne Arundel County was represented in the lawsuit by Everytown Law, the litigation arm of Everytown for Gun Safety. It has made public health a core part of its strategy, and not all gun rights advocates oppose the idea.
“I think it’s noteworthy that the literature that the county chose, was actually, at least part of it ... created by a gun advocacy organization,” Rodvien said.
Pennak, not surprisingly, sees the idea of gun violence as a threat to public health differently.
“It’s a way of demonizing firearms, and firearm owners by implication,” he said. “What they’re trying to communicate, the viral moments with these pamphlets is don’t buy that gun. Because if you do, more people in your household might commit suicide. I mean, that’s demonizing the right of self-defense that firearms provide.”
Because Anne Arundel headed off an injunction by voluntarily pausing enforcement of the law, it’s unlikely Maryland Shall Issue can convince the appeals court to block it until an appeal is decided. But whether the strategy the pamphlets represent spreads around Maryland is a more likely possibility because of one man.
Kalyanaraman was a driving force behind these pamphlets, as were members of the task force, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. More importantly, he argued for addressing gun violence as a health issue. Rodvien’s original idea focused on suicide prevention, a topic with a personal connection for her. He convinced her to expand her legislation to include conflict resolution.
Early in his tenure, Kalyanaraman described a public health approach as a way of communicating the risks involved to those who have guns or consider buying them.
The judge’s decision came on Tuesday, Kalyanaraman’s final day as health officer. He declined to comment on the ruling.
He accepted a position as Maryland’s deputy secretary for public health services, where he’ll oversee a $1 billion budget and 5,000 employees in all 24 local health departments and other agencies.
This will give him the perfect position to push for this strategy statewide. Judges deciding challenges to any expansions are likely to look closely at Gallagher’s detailed analysis and ruling.
This is not the only fight over gun violence in Maryland now, and it’s not even the biggest. But when I started calling for action on gun violence during funeral services for Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith in 2018, only a handful of elected officials responded with more than a sympathetic agreement on the need to do something.
Pittman was one, Rodvien was another.
Will it make a difference? Will one less person die by gun violence because of pieces of colorful paper on countertops in gun shops?
“It’s hard to know, you know? We may never be able to quantify something like this,” Rodvien said. “But maybe we will. I mean, maybe someone will say, you know, gosh, I purchased this weapon, but then I found this phone number. And I decided to give it a call and give it a chance before I pulled the trigger.”