Maryland lawmakers are on track to further tighten the state’s already-strict laws on guns, putting more limits on who can obtain concealed carry permits and where the weapons can be carried — a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that led to a flood of new permits issued.
“We want to make it clear, as we have 90,000 new wear and carry participants in the state and there are more people applying every day: Here’s where you can use it. Here’s where you can’t. We’re going to try and be as clear as possible and draw the brightest lines that we can,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee.
Lawmakers also making progress on toughening an existing law that requires gun owners to keep their weapons away from children, named for a teenage girl who was killed at her Southern Maryland high school.
And in a late maneuver, lawmakers are considering increasing the maximum criminal penalty for those who illegally possess a handgun, a key priority of Baltimore’s new state’s attorney, Ivan Bates.
The various gun measures are spelled out over three different bills that have been the subject of intense negotiation and debate as the 90-day General Assembly session heads toward adjournment at midnight on Monday.
“My message is that public safety is our number one priority,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who shepherded the bills through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “We’ve put forth legislation that I think will make every Marylander safer.”
Gun rights advocates, meanwhile, believe the bills have serious legal issues and are preparing to challenge them in court. Mark Pennak, president of the advocacy group Maryland Shall Issue, suggested that lawmakers are creating policy based on feelings more than on what’s constitutional.
“There is in the state a belief that guns are bad, among the governing elite,” Pennak said. “And there is no belief that guns can serve as self-defense, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Limiting concealed carry
Two of the bills address concealed carry permits, which are known in Maryland as wear and carry permits. Both were being debated on Friday, with final votes possible on Saturday or Monday.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen forced Maryland to scrap its requirement that handgun owners must show a “good and substantial” reason to be issued a wear and carry permit. The change resulted in a dramatic increase in permit applications that caused concerns about a possible proliferation of guns being carried in public.
So far this year, the Maryland State Police have fielded more than 27,000 wear and carry permits, according to a spokesperson.
“Studies show that more guns all over the place, everywhere do not make us safer,” said Melissa Ladd, Maryland chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “We want to make sure only people who are responsible gun owners are going to be carrying them. And there are certain places that guns just shouldn’t be.”
Members of the Moms Demand group have been a regular presence in Annapolis, wearing red T-shirts as they hosted rallies and observed voting sessions.
A bill sponsored by Clippinger expands the list of people who are not eligible for permits to include anyone under 21 years old; those on probation for a crime that carries a sentence of at least one year in jail; or those on probation for driving while impaired or violating a protective order.
The bill also increases permit fees and expands training requirements.
Sen. Mike McKay, a Western Maryland Republican who voted against the bill in committee, said the proponents of the bill “seem to to fall back on, ‘We need to do something.’” But McKay said that’s not enough: “Just because you feel that you want to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is constitutional.”
Meanwhile, another bill focuses on where people with wear and carry permits can have their guns, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Lawmakers have wrestled with how far to go in restricting where the permits are valid. While Democrats have raised concerns about a proliferation of guns being quietly carried in the community, Republicans have pushed back against restrictions they believe are too onerous and would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Waldstreicher’s bill was initially so broadly written that it would have eliminated the ability to have a concealed weapon in the majority of public places.
After much back-and-forth, the bill as currently written would generally ban the concealed carry of guns in schools, hospitals, places that serve alcohol or cannabis, casinos, stadiums, museums, government buildings and more. The current version also says guns can’t be carried on other types of private property unless the property owner grants permission, such as through posting a sign.
Tougher penalty for illegal possession
Lawmakers also resurrected a proposal from Bates, the new Baltimore state’s attorney, to stiffen the penalties for one specific gun crime.
It’s not clear, however, if the proposal will win passage by the end of the legislative session, as it ran into opposition during debate in the Senate on Friday afternoon. Discussion is expected to continue through Monday and Smith said he was confident both chambers would agree.
Bates’ proposal would increase the maximum sentence for people who are 21 and older for wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit from three years in prison to five years. The change would make the penalty match the punishment for those younger than 21 with the same violation.
Bates initially didn’t get much traction on his bill, with procedural deadlines coming and going without movement on the bill. But the state Senate grafted the measure into one of the other gun bills in the final days of the session.
“I understand that this bill alone will not cure the epidemic of violence in Baltimore. I also know that there is so much more to be done,” Bates, a Democrat, wrote on Wednesday in a newsletter. “But we can take a firm stance on illegal firearms while also creating the support services needed to address crime in the city we all love.”
The measure has drawn pushback from a broad coalition that ranges from criminal justice reform advocates to gun rights groups. Some have pointed to research that shows that increasing the maximum sentence for charges does not serve as a deterrent to crime.
The Office of the Public Defender decried the “11th hour” addition as “both harmful to safety and disingenuous to the legislative process.”
“Rather than regurgitating and expanding ineffective punitive approaches, the General Assembly should promote proactive safety measures that invest in communities and respond to the factors that underlie gun possession,” Elizabeth Hilliard, the public defender’s acting director of government relations said in a statement Friday.
Keeping guns from minors
Lawmakers are also on the way to passing Jaelynn’s Law, which tightens the rules requiring gun owners to keep their weapons stored safely.
Existing law prohibits gun owners from leaving a firearm where a child younger than 16 can access it; the legislation bumps that up to minors younger than 18.
Jaelynn’s Law also stiffens the penalties, according to Clippinger: A first offense would result in a ban on owning or carrying a handgun for five years. A second offense or a first offense resulting in death or injuries would lead to a lifetime ban on owning or carrying a handgun.
The law is named for Jaelynn Willey, who was fatally shot by a classmate at Great Mills High School in 2018. The 17-year-old boy who killed her had used his father’s legally owned gun, and died by suicide as a school resource officer fired at him, according to authorities at the time.
As state delegates cast their votes on Jaelynn’s Law on Thursday — 100-37 — Del. Brian Crosby, a Democrat who represents Great Mills, rose to praise members of the Willey family who have been pressing to change the law for years. After the vote was taken, delegates stood and applauded Jaelynn’s mother and sisters, who were seated in an observation balcony.
“Some stories people have the courage to share and I can’t imagine telling them, let alone living them,” Crosby said. “And they continue to tell them, really in many instances, knowing inevitably that the bill will fail. But eventually persistence does pay off.”
The version of the bill moving forward started in the Senate, and senators would need to sign off on changes that were made in the House before sending the bill to the governor’s desk.
Republican lawmakers have been steadfast in opposing the restrictions on gun owners — which they’re contrasting to what they say is a lack of action on people who use guns in violent crimes.
“I think we are doing reasonable things in Maryland to try to deter gun violence from law abiding citizens who own guns and sometimes do the wrong thing,” said Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican. “What we’re not doing anything about is the crime in the streets.”
As the House of Delegates debated one of the bills on Friday, Del. Kevin Hornberger, a Cecil County Republican, expressed concerns that the legislature is “creating a new class of criminals.”
Republicans plan to offer amendments to the bills to water them down during final debates on Saturday and Monday, but they’re unlikely to succeed. The General Assembly adjourns at midnight on Monday.
Baltimore Banner reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this article.