A new lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Maryland Firearm Safety Act of 2013 underscores the continued tension between those seeking greater regulation of firearms and those advocating for the protection of individual Second Amendment rights. In 2023, as states like Maryland continue to grapple with issues such as permit requirements, background checks, and restrictions on certain types of firearms, legal challenges to these measures continue to wage. Gun rights proponents see new daylight in an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
Maryland defended the Maryland Firearm Safety Act of 2013 before a skeptical 4th Circuit.
We also have commentary below on the new opinion in a different Maryland Shall Issue lawsuit against Montgomery County from May 2023.
- New Maryland handgun permit case in 2023 on a man who was denied an HQL
Firearm Safety Act of 2013
The enactment of the Firearm Safety Act of 2013 aimed to improve public safety by regulating the transfer and handling of firearms. One of the law’s key provisions is the requirement for most Maryland residents to obtain a handgun qualification license (HQL) before purchasing a handgun. Under Maryland Code Annotated, Public Safety § 5-117, individuals are not allowed to sell, rent, transfer a handgun, purchase, rent, or receive a handgun without presenting a valid HQL.
Getting a Handgun in Maryland
Maryland’s Handgun-Qualification-License (HQL) Process requires residents who wish to purchase a handgun to obtain an HQL from the Maryland Department of State Police (MSP). The HQL is issued to an applicant who is at least 21 years old, a Maryland resident, has completed a firearm-safety course within three years of application, and is not prohibited by federal or State law from purchasing or possessing a handgun. An HQL is valid for ten years, and a person seeking to renew their HQL license needs only pay a $20 renewal fee.
The required firearm-safety course must include at least four hours of instruction by a qualified handgun instructor on State firearm law, home firearm safety, and handgun mechanisms and operation. The course must also include a firearms orientation component that demonstrates the person’s safe operation and handling of a firearm, including safely firing at least one round of live ammunition. Applicants must submit an application in the manner and format designated by the Secretary of MSP, an application fee to cover the costs of up to $50, proof of completion of the safety course requirement, any other information or documentation required by the Secretary, and a statement under oath that the individual is not prohibited from possessing a handgun.
The FSA requires the Secretary of MSP to apply to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) for a state and national criminal history records check for each HQL applicant. To facilitate that process, the HQL application must include a complete set of the applicant’s legible fingerprints in a format approved by DPSCS and the FBI. Within 30 days of receiving a complete application, the Secretary shall either issue an HQL or provide a written denial accompanied by a statement of the reason for the denial and notice of appeal rights.
A person who is denied an HQL or whose HQL is revoked may request a hearing from the Secretary within 30 days of the action and, after that, seek judicial review. An HQL licensee who wishes to purchase a handgun must complete an application confirming that the applicant is not prohibited from acquiring a handgun and pay an application fee of $10. Unless an application is disapproved by the MSP within seven days (during which time the MSP conducts a review of the application and background check), the applicant may take possession of the handgun.
New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen
New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen is a case that came before the United States Supreme Court in 2021. It is a very pro-gun opinion that has emboldened run rights activists to test state laws limiting guns.
Bruen concerns New York’s rules governing the right to carry a concealed handgun. The case centered on a New York state law that required individuals seeking a permit to carry a concealed handgun in public to show “proper cause” for carrying a firearm. The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA) argued that the “proper cause” requirement was unconstitutional, and the case ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NYSRPA, holding that the “proper cause” requirement violated the Second Amendment. The Court’s majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito, held that the Second Amendment protects the right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense. The opinion also held that the “proper cause” requirement was too restrictive, as it left the decision of whether an individual could carry a firearm up to the discretion of local officials.
The Court’s ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen is significant because it marks the first time the Supreme Court has expanded gun rights since the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller. The decision also has implications for gun laws in other states that require individuals to show “proper cause” to carry a concealed handgun in public. You can draw a direct line between this case and the challenge in Maryland Shall Issue, Inc. v. Hogan.
Maryland Shall Issue, Inc. v. Hogan
Maryland Shall Issue, Inc. v. Hogan is a federal court case challenging Maryland’s handgun purchase permit requirements under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs, including Maryland Shall Issue, Inc. (a non-profit organization advocating for gun rights) and two individuals, argue that the permit requirements violate their Second Amendment rights by burdening law-abiding citizens who wish to exercise their right to bear arms.
As we set out above, Maryland law requires individuals to obtain a Handgun Qualification License (HQL) before purchasing a handgun. The HQL application process includes completing a firearm safety course, submitting fingerprints for a criminal background check, and paying a fee. The plaintiffs argue that the HQL process is overly burdensome and creates an unnecessary barrier for law-abiding citizens who wish to purchase a handgun for self-defense.
The case was initially dismissed by Judge Ellen L. Hollander, who held that Maryland’s HQL requirements were constitutional under the Second Amendment. However, the plaintiffs appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments on Friday.
The plaintiffs argue that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which expanded the scope of the Second Amendment to protect the right to bear arms outside of the home, requires a different analysis of Maryland’s HQL requirements. They argue that the HQL requirements do not align with the nation’s historical tradition and fail to provide a meaningful opportunity for law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
The defendants, including former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (I guess Governor Moore now) and other state officials, argue that the HQL requirements are necessary to ensure public safety and reasonably regulate the Second Amendment right to bear arms. They argue that the HQL requirements help to prevent guns from falling into the hands of dangerous individuals who are prohibited from possessing firearms. They also argue that people are still buying guns in Maryland – over 200,000 people – since the law was enacted ten years ago.
How Will Maryland Shall Issue v. Hogan Play Out?
Things do not look good for the new law. In oral arguments, Judges Julius Richardson and G. Steven Agee, both appointed by Republican presidents, seemed skeptical in oral arguments that this law can hold in light of Bruen. Judge Barbara Keenan, the only Democratic appointee on the three-judge panel, seemed open to the idea that the Maryland law might be constitutional if its infringement on the right to possess guns was “de minimis,” which is in line with Judge Hollander’s ruling. So the prediction here is a 2-1 ruling striking down the ban.
Another Maryland Shall Issue Lawsuit
Maryland Shall Issue filed another lawsuit, this one against Montgomery County. This lawsuit targets Bill No. 4-21, passed by the Montgomery County Council in April 2021, which amends Chapter 57 of the Montgomery County Code, which regulates weapons, including firearms. Among the amendments, the bill introduced provisions to regulate ghost guns, undetectable guns, 3D-printed guns, and their major components. It also expanded the definition of “place of public assembly” for identifying locations where carrying firearms is prohibited.
Maryland Shall Issue’s lawsuit alleges that Mongomery County exceeded its authority under the Maryland Constitution by expanding the “place of public assembly” definition. They also contend that the amendments are inconsistent with existing state law and violate the Maryland Express Powers Act. Furthermore, plaintiffs claim that the bill violates the Maryland Constitution’s Takings Clause and the Due Process Clause in Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.
On July 12, 2021, the County removed the case to the U.S. District Court. U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang issued a memorandum opinion on a lawsuit last week. U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang ruled that some claims would proceed in federal court, and some were sent back to state court, which is a little bit of a mess. Montgomery County requested to send the state law claims back to Maryland court and stay the federal claims. Judge Chuang agreed to remand the state claims but declined to stay the federal proceedings.