The reach of Monday’s gun-control ruling by the Supreme Court will get an early test case in Maryland.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices said the constitutional right to keep and bear arms limits the states’ ability to enact gun-control laws.
Defense attorney James B. Hopewell said he will cite the landmark ruling this fall in urging the Maryland Court of Appeals — the state’s top court — to overturn his client’s gun-possession conviction.
In November, a lower court rejected Hopewell’s arguments on behalf of Charles F. Williams Jr., noting that the Supreme Court had never extended the Second Amendment’s reach to the states.
That changed Monday.
“We think the Court of Appeals is looking at a significantly different legal environment” in light of the ruling in McDonald v. City of Chicago, said Hopewell, a Riverdale solo practitioner.
The ruling imposes “a much more stringent burden of proof on the state and municipal authorities to intrude on this right to keep and bear arms,” he added.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said he, too, awaits the Court of Appeals’ rulings on gun possession cases following what he called the Supreme Court’s unclear opinion.
“There’s definitely a right [to keep and bear arms] but the scope of it will be determined over time,” Ivey said. “The open question for Maryland is going to be how broadly or narrowly will that [right] be interpreted.”
The Supreme Court on Monday extended to states its 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms” applies to federal laws and Washington, D.C., a federal enclave.
In both rulings, the high court indicated that the right applies only to the possession of guns in one’s home for personal protection.
That limitation would work against Williams, who was convicted of gun possession outside the home.
But Hopewell said he will seize on language in Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s majority opinion stating that “the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self defense within the home.”
That language “suggests a much broader right” to gun possession, one that extends beyond one’s house, Hopewell said.
The office of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued a statement that it is “reviewing the court’s most recent decision but … we do not believe that any of Maryland’s laws are so restrictive that they violate the Second Amendment.”
Gansler had joined a friend-of-the-court brief Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan submitted to the Supreme Court urging the justices not to extend the Second Amendment to the states.
“For more than 200 years, the states have used their police powers to enact and enforce laws governing firearms,” Madigan wrote in the brief, which then-New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram also joined.
If the right is extended to the states, “nearly every firearms law will become the subject of a constitutional challenge, and even in cases where the law ultimately survives, its defense will be costly and time consuming,” the brief said.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger agreed that Maryland gun-control laws comply with the Constitution.
“The Supreme Court has left some restrictions that are placed by the state that are reasonable,” Shellenberger said, noting Maryland’s ban on gun possession by people with criminal records and restrictions on possession near schools and government buildings. “It really doesn’t change a lot here in Maryland.”
In the case pending before the Court of Appeals, Williams bought his handgun legally from a licensed dealer in August 2007.
On Oct. 1, 2007, a Prince George’s County police officer saw Williams near woods and asked what he had hidden in the bushes.
Williams responded, “My gun.”
The officer arrested Williams for unlawful gun possession, specifically for violating a provision on carriage and transport. He was convicted and sentenced on Oct. 6, 2008, to three years in prison with all but one year suspended.
The Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction, setting the stage for the constitutional challenge before Maryland’s high court.
“I’m certainly not going to predict what the Court of Appeals is going to do,” Hopewell said.
Arguments in the case are tentatively scheduled for October, according to the Court of Appeals clerk’s office. The case is Charles F. Williams Jr. v. State, No. 16, September Term 2010.