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Federal appeals court looks to strike down Maryland handgun restrictions

By Sarah May
|
March 14, 2023

Oral arguments were heard in the 4th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals last week in a case challenging Maryland's handgun purchasing and licensing rules, and as Reuters notes, the three-judge panel appeared poised to strike the rules from the books.

The Maryland case is one of a number of controversies in which the scope of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen is being tested and as has been true in similar matters, the judges appeared skeptical when it comes to allowing statutory infringements on the right to purchase and possess a handgun.

Case tackles Maryland handgun rules

At issue in the Maryland case is a 2013 state statute compelling residents to secure a permit before buying a handgun, a process that involves mandatory firearms safety training, fingerprinting, and other procedural steps.

Once the permit is obtained, an individual is allowed to make a handgun purchase attempt, a stage that entails an additional background check, according to Reuters.

While the statutory scheme had been upheld in federal court back in 2021, the Supreme Court decision in Bruen shifted the landscape sufficiently to prompt the new challenge currently before the appeals panel.

In that case, the high court declared that individuals have a Constitutionally protected right to carry a handgun for self-defense and that restrictions on that right must be in keeping with documented historical traditions and standards.

Opposing arguments lodged

Relying on precisely that reasoning from Bruen was Marc Nardone, an attorney representing those challenging the licensing rules.

“There is no historical analogue, tradition or anything related to the idea that an individual needs permission from the government to be allowed to undergo the background check that determines that they are in fact eligible to possess a firearm,” Nardone contended.

“The individual components [of the licensing scheme], the fingerprinting, the class, those are unconstitutional in and of themselves because there is no historical tradition of those,” he added, as the Maryland Daily Record noted.

Attempting to make the counterargument to Nardone's point was Maryland Assistant Attorney General Ryan Dietrich, who pointed to 18th-century militia training requirements, which he said constituted a historical tradition of “ensuring the dangerous, subversive, non-virtuous, however you want to describe it, folks do not get deadly firearms.”

Judges skeptical

Seemingly unconvinced by Dietrich's assertions was Judge G. Steven Agee, who, according to the Daily Record, asked the state's attorney, “What founding era analog do you have, from any of the states, that a citizen was required to have a permit from the government before they could have a handgun in their home?”

Agee further declared that the goal of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous citizens mentioned by Dietrich was “a generic concept” and not one that emerged from a specific statutory construct.

When Agee noted that he was “still waiting for any founding-era statute that had a restriction similar to what we have here,” Dietrich replied that the state had been “unable to find any that required advance permission.”

That admission appeared to be quite damning in the eyes of Judge Julius Richardson, who opined, “Courts are entitled to decide a case based on the historical records compiled by the parties. You've done, I'm certain, the best you could do, but we're entitled to rely based on the record compiled by the parties.”

Bruen's long reach emerges

If the Maryland regulations are indeed rejected by the appeals panel, the case will join a series of others in recent months that have illustrated the very real impact of the Supreme Court's summer ruling in Bruen.

Back in January, a federal judge put a temporary block on part of a controversial gun law signed by Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, which placed restrictions on those intending to carry handguns in public places and attempted to transform the way concealed carry permits would be granted in the state, as The Hill reported at the time.

In doing so, Judge Renee Marie Bumb cited the apparent inability of the state “to demonstrate a history of firearm regulation to support any of the challenged provisions,” echoing the concerns raised by two of the three appeals panel members in the case dealing with the Maryland law.

In addition, a case involving New York's attempt to rewrite its handgun laws in response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent elicited words of warning from Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas earlier this year, which prompted South Texas College of Law professor Josh Black to observe that while the high court is willing to allow time for the Bruen holding to “work its way through the system,” lower courts “should be very mindful that they can't just sort of ignore it; they have to sort of grapple with [it]”