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The erosion of Md. gun laws

Legislation pending in the General Assembly would overturn the state's long-standing rule restricting the concealed carry of guns to those who can articulate a "good and substantial" reason for needing to and instead allowing a general desire for self defense to suffice. Sen. Wayne Norman, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties, pointed to the current violence in Baltimore as the ultimate justification for opening the doors to far more people carrying guns in public. "I would suggest that's a reason to have a permit," Senator Norman said during a hearing on the legislation. "These are dangerous times, and this is a dangerous place."

Maryland law enforcement officials have long opposed that idea, saying that putting more guns on the street — whether in the hands of presumed law-abiding citizens or not — will endanger officers and the general public. But even if the General Assembly defeats these bills, as it has in the past, there are signs that Maryland is subtly creeping in the direction of a more permissive standard anyway.

Before Gov. Larry Hogan was elected, he said little about his views on gun control, other than to insist that he did not intend to change Maryland's laws. But he refused to release his answers to a questionnaire from the National Rifle Association, which gave him an A- rating and endorsed him. According to reporting at the time in the Washington Post, Mr. Hogan had told pro-gun activists that he would find ways to open the doors to more concealed-carry permits.

By all accounts, though, the Maryland State Police, which evaluates applications for such permits, has continued to follow its long-standing procedures and is applying the law as it always has. They still require applicants to show a documented threat or other specific reason that they believe they need a permit to carry a gun outside the home.

But there does appear to be a shift in the thinking of the Handgun Permit Review Board, which handles appeals to the state police's decisions. Last year, the Senate rejected one of Governor Hogan's appointees who had said publicly that he believed the "good and substantial" law was unconstitutional. But the other Hogan appointees on the board have shown an openness to a much broader interpretation of "good and substantial" than has been the case historically.

During the last several months, gun control advocates have been attending appeals hearings and documenting cases in which the board overturned decisions by the state police on questionable grounds. (Pro-gun groups attend the hearings, too.)

In October, the board overturned the state police to grant a permit to a man whose car had been broken into and burgled — but who had no documented evidence that he himself was a target.

That same month, another person who had been granted a permit to carry a gun in limited circumstances because he is a business owner who carries valuable items, appealed in hopes of being allowed to carry a gun anywhere at any time. Among other things, he cited the threats posed by ISIS and al-Qaida. The board voted 4-1 to allow it.

In November, a paramedic from Fruitland appealed his denial from the state police, saying he believed he could be in danger when responding to emergency calls. His supervisor at the fire company testified that he would not be allowed to carry a gun while at work and mostly assigned to administrative duty anyway. The board granted him a permit.

During their confirmation hearings last month, two new Hogan appointees to the board, Charles D. Hollman and Shari Lynn Judah, averred that they would objectively apply the law regardless of whatever their personal opinions might be. But they both expressed openness to providing permits based on their "common sense" perception of the potential danger an applicant might face — for example, a doctor who carries a prescription pad who might worry that it would make him a target — rather than the specific, documented reasons that have been required in the past.

The number of appeals heard by the board remains relatively small, though it appears to be growing, from 32 in 2015 to 53 in 2016. And the number of overturned decisions is growing, too, from nine in 2015 to 15 last year. In just the first two months of 2017, the board heard eight cases and overturned the state police six times.

In response, Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced legislation to move the appeals for concealed-carry permits from this board to the Office of Administrative Hearings. It's a good idea. That puts the decisions in the hands of administrative judges, who handle all manner of appeals of state agency rulings and who can provide a consistent application of the law regardless of who is governor. We urge the General Assembly to adopt it.

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