The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled today that Maryland’s preliminary handgun licensure requirement is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced, a victory for gun rights advocates in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision last year.
In a published opinion written by Judge Julius Richardson, the 4th Circuit found that Maryland’s law, challenged by gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue, restricts the ability of law-abiding adult citizens to possess handguns. Though Maryland’s law does not prohibit the group from owning handguns at some time in the future, according to the opinion, the law prohibits them from immediately owning handguns.
The 4th Circuit concluded Maryland’s law fails the Bruen test, finding that the state failed to establish that its law is consistent with the U.S.’s “historical tradition,” as Bruen requires. Under Bruen, a regulation is unconstitutional unless the government can show that “the regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” the opinion notes.
“This is a significant ruling for the Second Amendment and every American who cherishes our constitutional freedoms,” said Randy Kozuch, executive director for the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action. The Fourth Circuit Court’s decision to overturn Maryland’s restrictive gun license law sends a clear message: law-abiding Marylanders fundamental right to self defense must not be infringed.”
Gov. Wes Moore denounced the decision and said the state was weighing whether to appeal.
“I am disappointed in the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision,” Moore said in a statement. “This law is not about stripping away rights from responsible gun owners – it’s about every Marylander having the right to live free from fear. Common-sense gun laws are critical to protecting all Marylanders from the gun violence that has terrorized our communities. I am determined to do more than just give thoughts and prayers and attend funerals – and that’s why this law is vital to our administration’s commitment to keeping guns out of the wrong hands and saving lives.”
A spokesperson for the Maryland Attorney General said the office is weighing options for next steps in the case and declined to comment further.
Maryland Shall Issue and other gun rights advocates first brought their Second Amendment challenge to Maryland’s handgun licensure law in 2016. The district court originally dismissed that challenge for a lack of standing.
The law, which originated as part of Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act of 2013, imposes criminal liability on both parties to a handgun transaction unless the recipient has a valid handgun qualification license.
To obtain a license, the applicant must meet four requirements.
The applicant must be at least 21 years old, be a Maryland resident, complete a 4-hour firearms safety training course and undergo a background check, including the submission of fingerprints, according to the opinion. Once the applicant meets these requirements, completes an application, and pays the required $50 fee, the Secretary of State Police “shall issue” the applicant a handgun qualification license within 30 days.
Maryland Shall Issue raised opposition to this 30-day window, where the 4th Circuit agreed with the group in its opinion that though the plaintiffs are not permanently barred from owning handguns, “the challenged law deprives (Plaintiffs) of that ability until their application is approved, no matter what they do.”
The panel of the 4th Circuit noted in its opinion that this 30-day waiting period could coincide with a “critical time” during which the applicant expects to face danger, ruling this temporary deprivation as a “facially plausible Second Amendment violation.”
The panel also took issue with the handgun licensure law’s reach, saying that the law “burdens all people — even if only temporarily — rather than just a class of people whom the state has already deemed presumptively dangerous.”
Judge Barbara Milano Keenan dissented, writing that the majority “fundamentally misapplies Bruen” and should instead remand the case to the district court. In her dissent, Keenan criticized the majority for failing to account for the material differences between “may-issue” and “shall-issue” laws, noting that the majority’s view of the Second Amendment would render presumptively unconstitutional most nondiscretionary laws requiring a permit to purchase a handgun.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) called the 4th Circuit’s ruling a “deeply misguided decision that will make Marylanders less safe.”
“This ruling from the Fourth Circuit is yet another disastrous consequence of the absurd new Supreme Court standard that today’s gun laws need to match those from centuries ago,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “The Supreme Court needs to reconsider the ridiculous precedent it set last year, overturn the Fourth Circuit’s decision, and end this dangerous backward trend.”
William Taylor, deputy director of Second Amendment litigation at Everytown Law, also criticized the court’s decision.
“Requiring handgun purchasers to pass a background check and undergo gun safety training prior to purchasing a gun is not only common sense, it is entirely consistent with the Second Amendment and the new test established by the Bruen decision,” Taylor said. “While today’s decision is a setback to public safety, we fully expect that the full 4th Circuit, or if necessary, the Supreme Court, will reverse this dangerous decision and uphold Maryland’s critical gun safety law.”