Attorneys for the state argued Monday that Maryland's sweeping new gun law should take effect Tuesday as planned, telling a federal court that the gun-rights advocates seeking to halt it should have lodged their objections months ago.
Instead, the assistant state attorneys general wrote in a motion filed Monday, gun dealers reaped the profits of a months-long firearm-buying frenzy, and then challenged the law late last week, just days before it was scheduled to take effect.
"The firearms dealer plaintiffs had an economic incentive to delay bringing this challenge, as firearms dealers statewide appear to have been the beneficiaries of a significant increase in sales of the weapons and magazines," the attorneys wrote.
Gun sales in Maryland began to climb after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., last December, increased as the General Assembly debated the new restrictions earlier this year, and have soared in recent weeks as the date of the new law approached, according to state data. Sales this year already have exceeded last year's record total by more than 35,000 purchases.
Writing in a response to the federal lawsuit filed last week by a coalition of gun dealers, owners and gun-rights groups, the attorneys also contend that the legal challenge ultimately is likely to fail, and the gun law should be not be put on hold in the meantime.
A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, the day the law takes effect.
The new law bans the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, among other strict new provisions that together make Maryland's law among the toughest passed in the nation this year.
Like gun-control laws enacted in three other states in the wake of the shootings at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, Maryland's law faces a constitutional challenge.
"The trend has been there's this wave of new laws after Newtown, and then this wave of challenges," said Cody Jacobs, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Challenges to new laws in Connecticut, New York and Colorado are pending. Older laws banning the sale of assault weapons in California, the District of Columbia and Illinois have survived challenges.
"To my knowledge, an assault-weapons ban has never been struck down anywhere on Second Amendments grounds," Jacobs said. "That would be a first."
In Maryland, the gun-rights advocates argue that the ban on the sale of assault rifles and limits on magazines would infringe on their Second Amendment right to bear arms. On Friday, they asked U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake to suspend the law for two weeks while the question is settled.
Later the same day, they filed a second federal lawsuit challenging the centerpiece of the law: the requirement that handgun buyers give fingerprints to police and get a license.
They do not contest the constitutionality of the handgun license, which is used in five other states. Instead, they argue that the massive backlog of background checks for gun buyers would make it impossible for the Maryland State Police to issue handgun licenses in the time frame spelled out in the new law.
Failing to issue those licenses in time, they argue, amounts to a de facto ban on handgun sales.
In a response Monday, attorneys for the state write that the state police hired 30 new people to work on handgun licenses and that they will be issued on time. The processing of handgun licenses, they say, will be separate from the backlog of background checks for gun buyers, which stands at more than 50,000 as of last week.
State police announced last week they would waive the licensing provision for anyone who applied to buy a gun before Tuesday.
In their lawsuit, the gun-rights activists argued that the licensing provision would be unfair even if state police said they would not enforce it, because handgun buyers could not be assured that other law enforcement agencies would not.
A hearing has not been scheduled in the second case.
Opponents of the gun law considered petitioning it to referendum, a process that would have stopped the law from taking effect until voters could decide the issue in November 2014. But Maryland gun-rights groups, the National Rifle Association and a group of conservative lawmakers who had successfully petitioned other laws to referendum announced in April that they would try to overturn the law in court instead.
Thursday's hearing is to focus on whether the law should be temporarily suspended. The eventual debate on its constitutionality is expected to invoke the landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that the District of Columbia's ban on handgun ownership violated a Second Amendment right to have a gun in the home.
The gun-rights advocates argue the assault weapons to be banned under the law are commonly used for self-defense. Attorneys for the state responded Monday that the court's decision does not guarantee a constitutional right to have any gun in the home – particular not those that are "unusual or dangerous."
Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Maryland lawsuits are part of a wave of challenges that arose after the court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that there are limits to gun restrictions.
"The gun lobby and its supporters have brought lawsuits against virtually every new gun law," Lowry said.
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