The U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday that it will not examine Maryland's handgun permit law, leaving to stand a lower court ruling that the state's restrictive rules for carry permits do not unconstitutionally infringe upon gun-owners' rights.
The justices did not explain their reasoning, but the decision intensified a simmering dispute over the limits of firearms restrictions. Other challenges are pending in federal courts — including two in Maryland attacking the state's new ban on military-style assault rifles and its requirements for fingerprinting and training of buyers before they can purchase handguns.
Patrick Shomo, the president of gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue, said the case is part of a much larger legal debate. He said federal courts have other matters before them that could result in a broader dismantling of firearm restrictions.
"The other side can wish all they like," he said. "There has never been a case where a fundamental right has been affirmed by the Supreme Court and then has withered away."
Maryland is one of a few states that give officials broad latitude to deny permits to carry a gun in public. The state requires applicants to show "a good and substantial reason" why they need to carry a handgun in public.
Most states operate on a "shall issue" basis, meaning officials must give out a permit if an applicant meets certain objective criteria — such as passing a background check. Plaintiffs in the case had argued that the Maryland rules infringe on citizens' Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Underlying the dispute is a 2008 Supreme Court decision that for the first time affirmed an individual constitutional right to own a gun. That case, District of Columbia v. Heller, left many questions unanswered and opened the way for new suits seeking to find just how far gun rights extend.
"Heller basically said there is a right and refused to describe exactly what the right is, and now people have to work it out," said Mark Graber, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Among the subsequent cases was the challenge to the Maryland permit law, originally brought by Raymond Woollard. The Baltimore County resident had twice been given a handgun permit after his son-in-law broke into his home on Christmas Eve 2002. But when Woollard applied to renew the permit in 2009, state police decided the threat against him had passed and declined the application.
Woollard sued over the denial of his application and a federal district judge struck down the permitting law last year. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that the law is reasonably adapted" to the state's "significant interests in protecting public safety and preventing crime."
In asking the Supreme Court to have the final say, Woollard's lawyers said the issues at stake were broad and involved questions that were not spelled out in the Heller ruling.
The appeals court that upheld Maryland's law found that "the Second Amendment has no practical impact beyond the threshold of one's home," attorney Alan Gura wrote in a court filing.
But he said other federal courts have reached different conclusions, including a ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that "asserts that the right is equally important outside the home as inside, and should (subject to regulation) be generally accessible to law-abiding individuals."
Gura urged the Supreme Court to sort out the issue once and for all.
Maryland's lawyers argued in court filings in response that the case was a simple question of the appropriate state regulation of firearms and did not warrant a look by the high court.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said in a statement that the Supreme Court's decision would make Maryland a safer place.
"Decreasing the availability of handguns in public places reduces the chance that criminals will steal them and lessens the risks of serious injury and death for police and the public during what would normally be routine confrontations," he added.
Vincent DeMarco, the president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Heller ruling had made it possible to pass the state's new gun law, which banned the sale of assault-style rifles and magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds and created a new licensing scheme for handgun buyers.
Before the ruling, DeMarco said, gun rights groups approached every new restriction as though it were the first step toward banning all guns. But now, he said, that is not a realistic worry.
"Now basically if somebody says ... this is a first step to banning all guns, Justice Scalia won't let us," DeMarco said, referring to Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion in the Heller case.
But gun rights groups, including Shomo's Maryland Shall Issue, are challenging several provisions of the new law in a pair of federal lawsuits. A judge declined to put a hold on the law coming into force earlier this month, but on Wednesday the parties submitted a schedule proposing a trial early next year on the sales bans.