A federal judge rejected requests Tuesday to block Maryland's new ban on the sale of assault rifles and to prevent enforcement of a new handgun licensing program.
In denying a temporary restraining order, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake said the plaintiffs undercut their argument for an emergency suspension of the gun control law by waiting to challenge it until a few days before it took effect.
"This suit could have been brought months ago, but it was not," Blake said.
The constitutional challenge to the ban — and whether the Second Amendment guarantees the right to buy an assault-style rifle to protect one's home — will be the subject of a future hearing and remains to be decided. Blake said that based on evidence presented so far, she was not convinced that the plaintiffs would succeed.
The parties are scheduled to meet Thursday to set the next court date.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Shannon Alford played down the significance of Tuesday's defeat and said the ruling laid the framework for continued legal challenges to the law. "The fat lady hasn't even taken the stage, much less sang," she said.
The NRA is not a party to the lawsuits but is providing support.
The ruling meant that the state's sweeping new gun control law — with its ban on assault-style weapons, stricter limits on magazines and a system of licensing handgun buyers — went into effect as planned Tuesday. Gun control advocates celebrated.
"This is a great day for public safety," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. "As of today, Maryland will have one of the most effective gun violence prevention laws in the country."
The law is among the toughest passed in the nation in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December that killed 26 people.
Last week, gun rights advocates, gun owners and gun dealers filed a lawsuit arguing that the ban on the sale of assault rifles and limits on magazines infringed on their Second Amendment right to bear arms. In a second suit, they challenged implementation of the handgun program.
The lawsuits come amid record gun sales in Maryland, which began to climb after the Newtown shootings and soared in recent weeks as 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.
John Parker Sweeney, an attorney leading the challenges to the Maryland law, said that by allowing it to take effect, the court signaled "a willingness" to allow for the possibility that gun-ownership rights would be violated.
Sweeney said that as the law is enforced, he and his clients will consider whether to add a constitutional challenge to the state's new handgun licensing program. Five other states have such laws on the books.
On Tuesday, Sweeney argued that Maryland's program amounted to a de facto ban on handgun purchases because there was no guarantee the Maryland State Police, already overwhelmed by a backlog of background checks for gun buyers, would be able to process them.
The judge rejected that argument, saying "it seems to me — at this stage — particularly speculative." Blake added that while it's too soon to say whether the state will fail to meet the 30-day time frame spelled out in law, "there is no right to the immediate possession of a handgun."
Attorneys for the state argued the law should take effect, saying the gun rights advocates seeking to halt it should have lodged their objections months ago, but dealers instead reaped the profits of a months-long firearm-buying frenzy.
In discussing the evidence presented so far, Blake said she found Maryland's assault weapons ban applies only to a subcategory of rifles, which along with shotguns are often called long guns, and "it does not infringe on law-abiding citizens' right to possess most long guns in the home."
State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and a constitutional law professor at American University, said he and colleagues who worked to pass the law this year considered whether it could withstand a constitutional challenge.
"We were very careful in drafting the Firearm Safety Act to be respectful of the core Second Amendment rights identified by the Supreme Court," Raskin said after the ruling Tuesday. "The judge, rightly in my view, made clear today that if you're going to litigate the Second Amendment, don't shoot from the hip."
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