A week before Maryland's gun permit laws were set to loosen under a federal ruling allowing more people to carry concealed firearms in the state, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday delayed the shift.
The court, which issued its order pending an appeal, set an expedited schedule to take up the case — and the question of whether the Maryland State Police have discretion in granting concealed carry permits. It tentatively set arguments for late October.
The court order comes amid a nationwide debate over access to guns. A shooter opened fire last month in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people and injuring 58, raising questions about the restrictions placed on firearms — particularly from those opposed to easier access.
"We've seen a huge outcry from the public demanding common sense gun laws," said Daniel Vice, a senior attorney at the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He praised the 4th Circuit order, claiming it blocked a directive that "would have flooded Maryland's streets with unregulated guns."
"This is a strong sign that the court recognizes the extreme danger posed by guns in public," he said.
But opponents of Maryland's strict requirements say that greater access to concealed carry permits by law-abiding citizens will make the streets safer, by deterring crime and bringing the state more in line with the rest of the country.
"Let's face it, this is a civil right, and now the state is in the position of fighting a civil right," said Patrick Shomo, president of Maryland Shall Issue, a nonprofit based in Annapolis that works to preserve gun owners' rights.
"Civil rights are not always popular, but they always deserve protection," he said.
Maryland, like a handful of other states, follows a "may issue" policy for gun-carry permits, leaving the distribution of licenses up to the discretion of authorities after basic criteria, including a criminal background check, are met. State law also requires applicants for gun-carry permits to show that they have a "good and substantial reason" to have one.
That provision was declared unconstitutional in March by Baltimore U.S. District Court Judge Benson E. Legg, who said it infringed upon the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
"A citizen may not be required to offer a 'good and substantial reason' why he should be permitted to exercise his rights," Legg wrote. "The right's existence is all the reason he needs."
Legg's ruling, if allowed to stand, will turn Maryland into a "shall issue" state, which automatically issues gun-carry permits once safety conditions are met.
In a separate directive issued last week, Legg had given the state until Aug. 7 to stop using the "good and substantial reason" criterion. But Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who is appealing Legg's ruling, asked the 4th Circuit to intervene.
That led to Wednesday's order, which stayed Legg's edict.
In a 30-page motion filed with the appeals court, Gansler's office said a "stay is necessary to preserve the status quo so that this court can decide the important constitutional issues presented by this case … before taking the extraordinary step of invalidating a 40-year-old requirement of State law that the Maryland General Assembly found 'necessary to preserve the peace and tranquillity of the State and to protect the rights and liberties of the public.'"
The state lawyers claim Legg's ruling conflicts with other courts' interpretations of the Second Amendment and will cause "irreparable harm" to law enforcement's ability to protect public safety.
The legislature "enacted the good-and-substantial-reason requirement to help protect the people of Maryland from the scourge of handgun violence," the motion to the Richmond, Va.-based appeals court states.
Attorneys for Raymond Woollard, the Baltimore County man whose federal lawsuit resulted in Legg's ruling, said in a separate filing that striking the narrow portion of the state's law "brings Maryland more in line with the vast majority of other states in the union," including the four other states within the 4th Circuit's purview (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina).
"Arguments based on the supposed general social ills Maryland claims to be associated with firearms have been rejected by the United States Supreme Court," the lawyers wrote. "Moreover, the more persuasive research stands staunchly in favor of the right to keep and bear arms."
The lawyers, Alan Gura and Cary Hansel, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.