The appeals panel voted 2 to 1 to block the state’s enforcement of a key part of a law that was passed by Democratic lawmakers in 2013 after a mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
It required handgun buyers to obtain a “handgun qualification license” from Maryland officials and wait up to 30 days to have it approved, in addition to other background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases. At the time, advocates heralded the extra steps as a way to dissuade so-called “straw purchasers” who bought guns on behalf of people who couldn’t pass a background check. The 4th Circuit judges said in their opinion Tuesday that the 30-day period in particular abridged gun buyers’ right to keep and bear arms.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Attorney General Anthony G. Brown, both Democrats, did not immediately respond to questions about whether they would appeal the ruling, though Moore issued a statement saying he was disappointed and “will continue to fight for this law. Our administration is currently looking at all options and reviewing the ruling.”
“This makes it very clear that the state can’t erect obstacles,” said Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue and an original plaintiff who first challenged the gun licensing law in 2013. “The right to keep and bear arms necessitates the ability to acquire them. You cannot keep and bear that which you cannot acquire. ”
Deep blue Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group. Democratic lawmakers have been scrambling to bolster them as the new Supreme Court test eroded their confidence that the laws could be upheld in court. Separate Maryland laws prohibiting a handgun purchase without a seven-day wait or a background check by the Maryland State Police were not impacted by the ruling. It was not immediately clear whether lawmakers would attempt to rewrite the gun licensing law to appease the judges.
“We’ll have to look at this and subsequent decisions in the months ahead — we’re in unchartered waters,” said state Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, whose panel has jurisdiction over Maryland gun laws.
Two other Maryland laws are undergoing similar legal challenges from the same gun rights activists who overturned the gun licensing law. The 4th Circuit is weighing a challenge to Maryland’s 2013 ban on the sale of assault weapons, and a new “sensitive places” law enacted this year to limit where guns can be carried in public by those with concealed carry permits.
Maryland’s handgun permitting law is the latest gun control measure to fall in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. In that case, the high court’s conservative majority said gun restrictions were unconstitutional unless they were already in place around the time of the Second Amendment’s adoption or were closely analogous to Colonial-era restrictions.
Lower courts have since been weighing challenges to modern gun laws across the country, and conducting the “historical analysis” prescribed in the Bruen opinion, with some judges ruling to strike down various gun control measures. Maryland’s handgun permitting law, one of the most stringent in the country, was first challenged in 2016 and upheld by a federal district judge. But in its ruling Tuesday, a panel of 4th Circuit judges said that times had changed and that “Maryland’s law fails the new Bruen test.”
The appeals panel said in its 21-page opinion that it was blocking only a portion of Maryland’s law that requires prospective handgun owners to get a “handgun qualification license.” Adults in the state who want to buy a handgun must provide fingerprints, undergo a background check, fire at least one live round and take a four-hour firearms safety training course to get the qualification license. The process can take up to 30 days and unconstitutionally burdens the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, two of the three judges on the panel ruled, because it “prohibits all people from acquiring handguns until they can prove that they are not dangerous.”
“In Maryland, if you are a law-abiding person who wants a handgun, you must wait up to thirty days for the state to give you its blessing. Until then, there is nothing you can do; the issue is out of your control,” Judge Julius N. Richardson, who was nominated to the bench by President Donald Trump, wrote for the appeals panel. “Maryland has not shown that this regime is consistent with our Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
The court noted that it was not ruling on separate Maryland laws requiring permits to carry handguns or a firearms purchasing process that requires people to “fill out an application with certain identifying information and then wait seven days while the state performs a background check.”
Judge G. Steven Agee, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, joined Richardson’s opinion.
In a dissent, Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, a nominee of President Barack Obama, criticized what she called the majority’s “hyperaggressive view of the Second Amendment.”
“The majority bases its holding on the premise that if a law affects a prospective handgun purchaser’s ability to obtain a handgun ‘now,’ the law is presumptively unconstitutional,” she wrote.
A federal district judge in New York last month struck down citywide regulations that restricted handgun licenses to people who showed “good cause” and demonstrated “good moral character.” The judge found that the regulations were too similar to what the Supreme Court had invalidated the previous year in the Bruen opinion. In July, a federal district judge in Oregon upheld a handgun licensing law in that state with similarities to Maryland’s handgun permitting requirements. That ruling is being appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Maryland officials could seek a rehearing before the full 4th Circuit, or seek review at the Supreme Court. In a separate case this year, a federal district court suspended sections of a different Maryland gun control law that restricted the kinds of public places where people could carry firearms. State lawmakers passed it in the wake of the Bruen decision, which effectively overturned the state’s tough concealed carry requirements that made gun owners prove they had a “good and substantial” reason to carry a firearm in public.
While Maryland policymakers did not vow to challenge Tuesday’s ruling, the Everytown advocacy group suggested that was the clear next step to support gun control laws.
“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, deputy director of Second Amendment litigation at Everytown Law said in a statement. “While today’s decision is a setback to public safety, we fully expect that the full Fourth Circuit, or if necessary, the Supreme Court, will reverse this dangerous decision and uphold Maryland’s critical gun safety law.”