Baltimore County Council will consider legislation that would require stronger security measures at gun shops to protect firearms from potential burglaries.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s SAFE Act, for Secure All Firearms Effectively, would create a new license for firearm stores and temporary gun shows in the county. Gun shops and shows would have to meet standards set by the Baltimore County Police Department to receive the license. The bill will be introduced at the Dec. 16 council meeting.
“This is a serious problem because stolen guns are sold and traded to criminals, providing them with deadly weapons to commit violent crimes here and across our region,” Olszewski said.
In introducing the bill, Olszewski cited a spate of burglaries in recent years. Seven gun shops in the county were burglarized a total of 10 times in 2018 and 2019. Burglars succeeded in stealing firearms in four of those burglaries, including 51 weapons in one incident.
In June, burglars hit gun shops in Howard and Montgomery counties on successive nights, ramming each store with a car to steal a total of 45 weapons. The Montgomery County burglary ended in a shootout, with police killing one of the suspects. A suspect charged in those cases was involved in one of Baltimore County’s attempted burglaries, Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said.
But addressing the issue is difficult amid the debate on whether the government should tighten gun control laws. Pro-gun advocates said Monday that Maryland already regulates gun shops “very extensively,” and they are worried the county is trying to limit the number of gun stores in the area.
Attorney Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, said Maryland already has laws that “very, very extensively" govern how gun shops should operate.
Maryland also has a state law that prevents local governments from regulating gun sales, Pennak said. He urged the county “to be thinking strong and hard about whether” they’re going to face a court challenge if this legislation moves forward because he thinks a court challenge would "probably be successful.”
But Olszewski said gun shops need to be held to reasonable security standards, pointing to the stringent state safety requirements for medical cannabis facilities. The Democratic executive said the county’s responsibility is to close any “gaps in the law that help fuel violence.” The new rules would apply only to shops within 100 yards of “a park, church, school, public building, and other place of public assembly," which is tailored to an exemption allowed in the state law.
Hyatt said the police have met with the owners of stores that have been broken into, but the police have been “unable” to convince those owners to improve their security to protect their firearms. Although she commended the many “responsible" gun stores in the county, others are “far less proactive," Hyatt said.
One owner, she said, even mentioned how “the guns are insured and are not considered a loss if stolen.”
While some shops employ limited security measures, such as window bars, the county said those measures are often not comprehensive, consistent or effective.
Olszewski said many gun shops fail to store their weapons in safes or vaults after their business closes for the day. A total of 5,652 firearms were stolen nationwide last year in burglaries from dealers, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The SAFE Act would require gun shops to be monitored at all times by an alarm system registered with the county and a video system. Shops also would have to install bollards or another physical barrier to prevent burglars from using a vehicle to enter the building.
The SAFE Act also would require shops to install security gates or screens over windows and doors. Weapons would have to be locked in a safe and secure room when the business is closed, or the county police chief could approve the use of a security guard.
Temporary gun shows would have to use an alarm system, video surveillance and live security guard when the show is closed.
Gun shops wouldn’t be able to have or sell firearms at the store without the new license if the bill becomes law, county spokesman Sean Naron said.
Olszewski said the county hasn’t yet determined how much the licenses will cost gun retailers.
Three of the four Democrats on the seven-member county council have publicly voiced support for the bill. Councilman Julian Jones Jr. of Woodstock said he doesn’t want “to put anybody out of business,” but he called for “minimum standards” to protect firearms. Councilman Izzy Patoka of Pikesville said SAFE Act will be “successful” if the county sees fewer illegal guns on the street. Councilman Cathy Bevins of Middle River agreed with them.
“I don’t care what your stance is on guns, I can’t imagine anybody wanting guns to get in the wrong hands of the bad guys," Bevins said.
The costs associated with the bill concern Bevins, who said the county should make grants or low-interest loans available to the businesses. She also supports giving gun shops six to 12 months to comply with the law.
Fellow Democratic County Council chair Tom Quirk said he’s still gathering information about the bill before he takes a stance. Likewise, Republican Councilman David Marks of Perry Hall said he’s undecided because he’s also concerned about the bill’s cost to businesses.
Republican Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville said the owners of the gun shops, who all attended a meeting with the county administration, should have a lot of involvement in the legislation. He said the gun shops “for the most part supported” the measure, but he said it’s difficult for him to take a stance on the bill until he’s seen the actual legislation.
“It’s not a gun control issue... Nobody wants a criminal to steal a gun," Kach said.
Paul Brockman, a spokesman for the grassroots group Patriot Picket, said gun shop burglaries are "not super prevalent” and most owners lock their inventory in a safe. The bill is trying to regulate something the gun shops are responsible for handling, he added.
“It almost seems like they’re trying to over-regulate to the point where they will limit or chase out the number of federally licensed firearms dealers in the county. We think that’s probably their ultimate goal," Brockman said.
Robert Warnick also thinks the bill will only succeed in reducing the number of gun shops in the county. Warnick is a former county cop and owner of The Gun Shop and Fishing Tackle store in Essex.
“They called the owners of the gun shops into police headquarters and pretty much told us what they’re going to do and then asked for suggestions," Warnick said. “It’s just another way of denying the Second Amendment to the people of Baltimore County."