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No reprieve for Md. gun rights advocates

Maryland’s new gun-control law dodged a bullet on its first day Tuesday, as a federal judge rejected arguments from gun-rights advocates to block statutory provisions banning the purchase of semi-automatic assault weapons and requiring handgun purchasers to be licensed by the state before buying.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rebuffed the bid for a temporary restraining order, saying the advocates were unlikely to ultimately prevail in court in their argument that the ban violates the Second Amendment right of people to keep and bear arms. Blake, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, said that right is generally limited to the possession of handguns in the home for the purpose of self defense.

Blake also rejected the advocates’ request that the licensing requirement be put off for at least 90 days. The advocates’ attorney, John Parker Sweeney, had called the delay necessary to enable Marylanders to exercise their right to buy a handgun while the state police begin processing license applications, which could take as much as 30 days under the new law.

“Today there is a de facto ban on acquiring handguns,” said Sweeney, of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP in Washington. “You need a license, but you can’t get one. That’s where we are today.”

Blake, who sits in the Baltimore federal courthouse, said those seeking to purchase handguns are not irreparably harmed by the wait for licenses.

In rejecting the request for a restraining order, Blake said the advocates’ claim of irreparable harm by the law was belied by their decision not to seek one until just days before the statute went into effect. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the 2013 Firearm Safety Act into law on May 16, and the request was filed late last week.

“The plaintiffs have known for months” that the law would go into effect on Oct. 1, Blake said. “This could have been brought months ago but was not.”

Blake’s decision is not her final ruling on the law’s constitutionality. That decision will come after an as-yet unscheduled full hearing on the advocates’ claim that the law is unconstitutional. The Office of the Maryland Attorney General is defending the statute in court.

“The fat lady hasn’t sung,” Shannon Alford, a Maryland lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said after Blake’s ruling. “She hasn’t even taken the stage yet.”

A gun-control advocate said Blake’s decision, though not final, sent a strong signal that the law passes constitutional muster.

“This is a great day for public safety in Maryland,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. “As of today, we’re going to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”

Attorneys on both sides, as well as Blake, said they anticipate the judge’s ultimate ruling will be appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

Blake’s decision came at the end of a two-hour hearing at which T. Sky Woodward, an attorney for the advocates, said semi-automatic weapons, like handguns, are “a class of firearms commonly used for defense of the home” and cannot be banned without violating the Second Amendment. Woodward also argued that the 10 rounds per magazine limit infringes on a person’s right to defend themselves in their home because 15 to 19 rounds are often required to stop a violent intruder.

Defending oneself with a gun and sufficient ammunition is “a fundamental constitutional enumerated right” embodied in the Second Amendment, said Woodward, also of Bradley Arant. “A fundamental right is no right at all if a restraint on its exercise cannot be addressed by the court on the day of its implementation.”

Blake found those arguments unconvincing.

The Supreme Court has said handguns are the most common weapons for self-defense within the home, Blake said, citing the justices’ rulings in two Second Amendment cases, District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. City of Chicago in 2010.

The judge added that Woodward’s argument for greater magazine capacity due to errant shots tends to support the public-safety need for limiting the number of rounds.

“What unintended targets are all those extra bullets going to hit?” Blake said.

Matthew J. Fader, of the attorney general’s office, defended the law and its ban on semi-automatic weapons as “a comprehensive measure to stem gun violence in Maryland.” Semi-automatics are “a particularly dangerous class of weapons suitable for military-style assault,” not for self defense within the home, said Fader, a deputy chief of the attorney general’s civil-litigation division.

Blake rejected the request for TROs in two separate lawsuits challenging the law and filed against O’Malley, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Secretary of State Police Marcus L. Brown and the Maryland State Police.

The cases are Tardy et al. v. O’Malley et al. (1:13-cv-02841-CCB), which challenges the assault weapons ban and 10-rounds limit in magazines; and Doe v. O’Malley et al. (1:13-cv-02861-CCB), which challenges the licensing requirement for handgun purchasers.

The plaintiffs in both cases include Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore Inc., Atlantic Guns Inc., Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association Inc., Maryland Shall Issue Inc., Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc., National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc. and Wink’s Sporting Goods Inc.

The Tardy case includes three individual plaintiffs: Matthew Godwin, Shawn Tardy and Andrew W. Turner. The three individual plaintiffs in Doe are listed as Jack, Jane and John Doe.