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Maryland handgun permit law found unconstitutional

A federal judge in Baltimore has struck down part of Maryland’s handgun permit law as violating the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Judge Benson E. Legg said the law’s demand that applicants show “good and substantial reason” to carry a gun is overly broad and not “reasonably adapted” to the state’s substantial interest in ensuring public safety.

Because the right to gun ownership is rooted in the U.S. Constitution, the state must show why an applicant should be denied a permit, rather than require applicants to show why they deserve one, Legg ruled Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

When a constitutional right is implicated, “[a] citizen may not be required to offer a ‘good and substantial reason’ why he should be permitted to exercise his rights,” Legg wrote. “The right’s existence is all the reason he needs.”

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Matthew Fader, who argued on behalf of the state, said the case is not over.

“In light of the very important implications of the ruling for public safety, the defendants will be appealing to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Fader said in an emailed statement. “The defendants will also be seeking a stay of the ruling pending appeal.”

Legg’s decision granted summary judgment for Raymond Woollard against the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board.

Woollard, an honorably discharged Navy veteran, was not allowed to renew his handgun permit in 2009.

The board rejected Woollard’s renewal under Section 5-306 of Maryland’s Public Safety Article, which requires applicants to show “good and substantial reason to wear, carry, or transport a handgun, such as a finding that the permit is necessary as a reasonable precaution against apprehended danger.”

The board said Woollard, who had obtained the permit in 2002 after fending off an intruder in his Hampstead home, could not show he had been subjected to “threats occurring beyond his residence.”

He appealed the denial to the U.S. District Court.

Woollard’s attorney hailed Legg’s decision not only as a victory for his client but for all supporters of the Constitution.

The American people cannot “pick and choose” which constitutional right is more important than the others, said Cary J. Hansel III, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt.

“If civil rights are important to you, then the Second Amendment should be also,” Hansel said. “The reason is because an unconstitutional government intrusion on any of your rights is an intrusion on all of them…. As goes this one, so can go the other ones.”

The Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation, which supports gun rights, joined Woollard’s challenge to the permit provision and praised Legg’s decision.

“The federal district court has carefully spelled out the obvious: that the Second Amendment does not stop at one’s doorstep, but protects us wherever we have a right to be,” said the foundation’s executive vice president, Alan M. Gottlieb, in a statement. “Judge Legg’s ruling takes a substantial step toward restoring the Second Amendment to its rightful place in the Bill of Rights, and provides gun owners with another significant victory.”

Jonathan Lowy, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, assailed Legg’s ruling.

“This decision is an outlier and it goes against virtually every decision construing the Second Amendment” since the Supreme Court’s 2008 landmark gun-rights decision in D.C. v. Heller, said Lowy, who directs the center’s legal action project. “Every other court has recognized that the reason that the Supreme Court … never once said there is a constitutional right to carry loaded guns in public is because there is no constitutional right to carry loaded guns in public.”

The center had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to Legg, urging him to uphold the state’s handgun permit law.

Not as strict

Legg wrote that his decision is limited to the statute’s “good and substantial” provision and does not address other “presumptively lawful” sections that bar the possession of guns by convicted felons or other individuals the state proves mentally unfit to carry a firearm.

Legg’s ruling follows Heller as well as the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago, which applied the same strict-scrutiny standard to a municipal gun control law. In both Heller and McDonald, the Supreme Court said the government can regulate gun possession inside the home only upon a showing that the regulation is narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling governmental interest of public safety.

Citing those decisions, Legg applied a less-demanding test for state regulation of gun possession outside the home. The regulation must be reasonably adapted to the government’s substantial interest in public safety, he wrote.

However, the state’s law failed even that test, the judge ruled.

“Beyond peradventure, public safety and the prevention of crime are substantial, indeed compelling, government interests,” Legg wrote. “The Maryland statute’s failure lies in the overly broad means by which it seeks to advance this undoubtedly legitimate end.”

For example, the broad requirement that a person have a good and substantial reason to be armed neither advances the state’s interest in ensuring only law-abiding citizens carry guns nor prevents weapons from being carried “where the possibility of mayhem is most acute,” such as near schools, government buildings or bars, Legg wrote.

“Rather, the regulation is a rationing system,” Legg added. “It aims … simply to reduce the total number of firearms carried outside the home by limiting the privilege to those who can demonstrate good reason beyond a general desire for self defense.”

The regulation does no more to protect public safety “than would a law indiscriminately limiting the issuance of a permit to every tenth applicant,” Legg added. “The solution, then, is not tailored to the problem it is intended to solve.”