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Maryland’s handgun licensing law has been struck down by a federal appeals court

Nov 21, 2023, 12:04 PM | Updated: 1:54 pm

BALTIMORE (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down Maryland’s handgun licensing law, finding that its requirements, which include submitting fingerprints for a background check and taking a four-hour firearms safety course, are unconstitutionally restrictive.

In a 2-1 ruling, judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said they considered the case in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that “effected a sea change in Second Amendment law.”

The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2016 as a challenge to a Maryland law requiring people to obtain a special license before purchasing a handgun. The law, which was passed in 2013 in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, laid out a series of necessary steps for would-be gun purchasers: completing four hours of safety training that includes firing one live round, submitting fingerprints and passing a background check, being 21 and residing in Maryland.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, said he was disappointed in the circuit court’s ruling and will “continue to fight for this law.” He said his administration is reviewing the ruling and considering its options.

“Common-sense gun laws are critical to protecting all Marylanders from the gun violence that has terrorized our communities.” Moore said in a statement Tuesday. “I am determined to do more than just give thoughts and prayers and attend funerals — and that’s why this law is vital to our administration’s commitment to keeping guns out of the wrong hands and saving lives.”

The 4th Circuit opinion by Judge Julius Richardson directly references the Supreme Court decision last year that found Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. That ruling, which also came after a series of mass shootings, ushered in a major expansion of gun rights.

It also required gun laws to fall in line with the country’s “historical tradition of firearm regulation.” In this case, Richardson and Judge G. Steven Agee found no evidence of such alignment.

“If you live in Maryland and you want a handgun, you must follow a long and winding path to get one,” Richardson wrote in the opinion. “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.”

The court also pointed to the timeline for obtaining a handgun qualification license, which could take up to 30 days.

Even though Maryland’s law doesn’t prohibit people from “owning handguns at some time in the future, it still prohibits them from owning handguns now,” Richardson wrote. “And the law’s waiting period could well be the critical time in which the applicant expects to face danger.”

But in her dissenting opinion, Judge Barbara Milano Keenan said her colleagues misapplied the Supreme Court precedent. She condemned their “hyperaggressive view of the Second Amendment.”

Instead of reversing the district court ruling that was issued before the 2022 Supreme Court decision, Keenan argued, the case should instead have been remanded to the lower court for reconsideration because “there is no legitimate reason to short-circuit the judicial process.”

Agee and Richardson were appointed by Republican presidents, while Keenan was appointed by a Democrat.

The Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling — its first major gun decision in more than a decade — was similarly split, with the court’s conservatives in the majority and liberals in dissent.

Mark Pennak, president of the advocacy group Maryland Shall Issue, which brought the lawsuit challenging the state licensing requirement, said he’s pleased with Tuesday’s ruling. He said it removes an unnecessary tangle of red tape.

“It’s a big win for common sense and the rule of law,” he said.

Pennak said the 2013 law made obtaining a handgun an overly expensive and arduous process. Before that law passed, he said, people had to complete a more limited training and pass a background check, among other requirements.

___

The spelling of Michael Pennak’s last name has been corrected in this story.

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Maryland’s handgun licensing law has been struck down by a federal appeals court