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Md. senators worried panel becoming ‘handgun assistance board’

Guns on display at FreeState Gun Range in Middle River.  (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Guns on display at FreeState Gun Range in Middle River. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS — Five of Gov. Larry Hogan’s appointments to the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board have a number of Democratic legislators expressing concerns the panel will be more receptive to approving conceal-carry permits.

The Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted Monday to approve four appointments to the board — Jacques R. Cowan, Richard Lee Jurgena, Patricia S. West, Courtney M. White and Robert D.H. Wilson. But the vote came after a number of senators raised concerns that the board was changing direction and would approve conceal-carry permits for people rejected by the Maryland State Police.

“If you’re concerned about the direction of the State Board of Education and some of these other boards, you better look carefully at this board because it’s moving in the direction that’s going to raise some concerns,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City and a member of the committee.

McFadden, who was one of five committee Democrats who opposed the nominations, said he now refers to review board as the “handgun assistance board.”

“The fact is this is really shifting hard right on this commission, and the word in on the street is if you need a gun and you’re turned down …,” McFadden said.

The nominees could be voted on by the full Senate as early as Friday.

Several of Hogan’s appointees to the board are handgun instructors. Some teach and assist those looking for carry permits. Others said they were members of the National Rifle Association or believed in the right to carry a firearm.

They have all been serving since their appointment by the governor, most since last year.

Not a ‘rubber stamp’

Wilson, the current chairman of the board, said the panel takes its job seriously and has, at times, overturned the recommendations made by the state police on applications that were initially rejected.

“We’re not a rubber stamp for the state police,” Wilson said. “I think we take our job very seriously.”

Wilson said the board has at times overruled the state police in cases where a colonel at Fort Detrick, who works with biological weapons, applied for a carry permit and was denied for a lack of a “good and substantial reason.”

“This man is the protector of all our biological weapons,” Wilson said. “If nothing else, people would want to grab him off the streets just for what’s between his ears.”

Wilson said others who were granted permits include a retired CIA official and retired police and corrections officers who retired in good standing.

Applicants for concealed-carry permits in Maryland must have no serious criminal offenses on their record, and they have to show “good and substantial” cause – usually connected to their job or to their need for heightened security – to obtain such a permit.

The board is required to hear appeals from anyone who is rejected by the state police and applies for a hearing. Appellants can present information that was not initially provided or considered by the state police.

Wilson said in some cases the state police have reviewed that information before an appeal hearing and opted to issue the permit rather than take the issue before the board.

‘Different direction’

Wilson said when he and other new members arrived on the board, they found a panel that was out of compliance with the Maryland Open Meetings Act, losing records and recordings of meetings, and in a state of general disarray. Since then, he said there has been an effort to get on track.

“I know you’re saying we’re going in a different direction but I feel strongly that we’re going in a different direction and complying with the law,” Wilson said.

Permits to carry concealed weapons is not only a sensitive issue but a highly politicized one in Maryland, a state that is a may-issue state rather than a shall-issue state.

Hogan’s victory in 2014 raised the hopes of Second Amendment advocates, some of whom said the governor, then a candidate, assured them he would appoint a gun rights-friendly state police superintendent and expand who can carry a concealed handgun.

A spokesman for Hogan was not immediately available for comment.

Firearms instructor

One appointee who drew the concerns of some senators was Courtney White, an instructor at the Iota Firearms and Security Training Academy. White said her company carefully selects students, screening for those who have the best chance of receiving a permit upon passage of the training classes. She said the company assists those students in applying for the permits and boasted a success rate of as much as 90 percent.

“I’m a fair person and willing to support anyone who is qualified to carry a gun,’ White said. “If they are, I will do everything to support them in their application process.”

But White said she recuses herself from deciding cases involving appeals from students who pass through the Iota training program.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. expressed concern about White, saying he believes she is involved in cases involving students of Iota. He abstained but said ultimately he believed Hogan should have his appointees.

“These are the governor’s people,” Miller said before adding a word of caution. “It’s a change in philosophy.”