Harford sheriff wants changes in law to make handguns easier to own

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler plans to work with a handful state legislators during the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session to modify the state's strict gun laws, making it easier for residents, especially those who are in "imminent danger," to obtain a handgun permit.

Gahler will work with two of Harford County's state senators, Robert Cassilly and Wayne Norman, and two Anne Arundel County delegates, Seth Howard and Michael Malone, on several gun-related bills during the 2016 legislative session, according to a recent news release from the Sheriff's Office outlining Gahler's legislative platform.


The General Assembly will convene for its 90-day session on Jan. 13. The sheriff will work with the four legislators to "protect the right of all Marylanders to bear arms," according to the news release.

"I am very appreciative of the fact that Sheriff Gahler supports the Second Amendment," Norman, whose district also includes parts of western Cecil County, said Tuesday.


Gahler is seeking legislation that would reduce the license fee for handgun purchases by 50 percent, to make corrections officers and retired federal law enforcement officials exempt from training when applying for a handgun license and to allow the secretary of State Police to "temporarily waive" required firearms training for applicants who are in "imminent danger."

"He has a bill that he wants put in saying, if a woman has been beaten or abused, that alone would be a good cause to issue a temporary gun permit, and I think that's pretty logical," Norman said of the sheriff. "I think that's a good idea."

In written responses to a series of emailed questions, Gahler didn't say if he has the support of the full Harford legislative delegation of three senators and eight delegates, saying: "I have the support of those delegates and senators who have stepped forward to introduce the various pieces of legislation."

"As to the opinion of each of our local representatives, that is a question they would need to answer for themselves," he continued. "In order to introduce the Harford County members of the General Assembly to my legislative package, we (the HCSO) hosted a legislative breakfast at the office on December 17 and fully explained each of the bills proposed, including those that address gun rights, the heroin epidemic, traffic safety and public safety in general."


2nd Amendment supporters

Gahler said he is working with two delegates from Anne Arundel County because, "during the 2015 legislative session, I was pleased to partner with Delegate Howard in helping to repeal the failed ballistic fingerprinting program (IBIS). Both Delegate Malone and Delegate Howard are strong supporters of the 2nd Amendment."

Neither of the Anne Arundel delegates could be reached for comment Tuesday.

"Locally and related to gun rights, I am working with [Harford] Delegate [Susan] McComas on a bill that will expand the training exemptions to include correctional deputies and retired federal law enforcement officers, enabling them to purchase firearms without burdensome regulations," he said.

"I am working with Senator Cassilly on a bill to repeal the single shot requirement that was made part of the Handgun Qualification License through regulation (not law) by the Maryland State Police," he said. "I am working with Senator Norman on a bill that would reinstitute provisions permitting the issuance of handgun permits in emergencies. I was also pleased to support Senator Norman's bill last year to add self-defense as cause for the issuance of a handgun permit. Although this measure did not pass last year, I am hopeful that Senator Norman will again introduce the same bill this session."

The General Assembly approved stringent gun laws in 2013 that limit the amount of ammunition in a semiautomatic rifle magazine to 10 rounds and toughened the requirements for obtaining a gun license. As a candidate in 2014, and before, Gahler publicly criticized many of those actions.

The tougher state laws were passed several months after 26 people, including 20 schoolchildren, died in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

Gun-rights advocates, including the majority of Harford's legislative delegation at the time, derided the Maryland laws as a violation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the rights of Americans "to keep and bear arms."

Norman said Tuesday that none of Maryland's stricter gun laws had "any effect whatsoever" on preventing the more than 300 homicides in Baltimore in 2015.

"Gun laws only keep legal people from being able to defend themselves because only lawful citizens bother to get a gun permit," the senator continued. "Some of these laws make people feel good, but they don't do anything to protect my constituents."

Norman said "stiffer penalties and stricter enforcement of existing laws" are needed for people convicted of crimes to reduce homicides and other violent offenses.

"Everybody is not entitled to a second chance," he said. "There are reasons we have prisons; there are reasons why people get criminal records and have them, so other people can be forewarned."

Backing sheriff

Norman said he plans to introduce legislation during this session similar to what Gahler wants, a bill that would allow a gun permit to be issued to a person dealing with "threats of personal violence."

Cassilly, who has a brother, Andrew, serving in the House of Delegates and another, Joseph, who is the county state's attorney, said Tuesday he has drafted a bill for introduction to remove the "one shot" requirement from firearm safety training courses.

He said students must fire a weapon once at the end of their training courses to demonstrate their mastery of the firearm. The shooting and training classes must be held at a firing range.

Cassilly said removing the shooting requirement would mean the classes could be taught at more locations and be open to more instructors, which could then lower the cost as the course is not tied to a shooting range or restricted to instructors who own ranges or are paying range fees.

"Firing a single shot doesn't do anything to promote weapons safety," said Cassilly, an Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq.

"Let's focus on the objective of this, which is to get people to take the firearms safety course, and that goal is not enhanced by firing a single shot," he added.

Cassilly said students would not have to own a firearm, but they would still learn all aspects of handling, cleaning and storing a weapon and how to use the weapon sights, similar to the extensive training given to military recruits before they fire any live ammunition.

Cassilly said Gahler suggested the legislation.

"He's somebody who deals with firearms on a daily basis," he said of the sheriff.


President speaks


President Barack Obama proposed federal legislation in 2013 after Sandy Hook to close the loopholes that allow people to purchase firearms from private sellers other than licensed weapons dealers.

Many of those purchases are made online or during gun shows, although anyone who purchases a firearm during Bel Air's annual Gun Show must go through a background check on-site at the Bel Air Armory.

Obama's proposal failed in the Senate in 2013, but the president proposed executive actions Tuesday including requiring anyone who sells firearms to get a license and conduct background checks on buyers, hire 200 more agents and investigators for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help speed up background checks and invest $500 million to expand access to mental health treatment to prevent not only mass shootings, but suicides by guns as well.

Obama also proposed working with gun manufacturers to improve technology and prevent accidental discharges of firearms.

"If a child can't open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can't pull a trigger on a gun," he said during an online broadcast of his speech at the White House.

The president, who stressed he supports the Second Amendment, spoke while surrounded by people whose loved ones have died in mass shootings in recent years, including a father whose son was killed at Sandy Hook.

"This is not a plot to take away everybody's guns," he said. "You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm."

Taking issue

Norman said Tuesday afternoon that he had not heard Obama's proposals, but he doesn't expect they will make a difference.

"I have no doubt they are equally ineffective at preventing gun violence as anything else he's proposed in seven years," Norman said.

Cassilly spent all day Tuesday in Baltimore at the Maryland Bar Association's annual legislative workshop, so he had not seen the details of what Obama proposed regarding gun laws.

"I'm interested, and I'll take the time later this evening to read through this [information]," he said.

Gahler said he did not hear the president's speech, either, because he was meeting with law enforcement leaders from the region "concerning drug abuse and enforcement in our communities;" however, he said he had conducted a "cursory review" of the executive order "in an effort to determine local applications and what, if any, impact it will have on violent crime."

"It appears that the President continues to subscribe to the thought that more restrictions on law abiding gun owners will reduce crime and save lives," he said. "For the vast majority of homicides committed in this country, the suspects are not obtaining their firearms through a dealer, at a gun show or through any other legal pathway. Criminals are buying firearms from other criminals in order to commit more criminal acts."

"It is clear that it is the criminal that we need to focus on and not the law abiding gun owner who deserves and, more importantly, has the Constitutional right, to own firearms for their personal protection, for their collection, for hunting, for target practice, or for no other reason that they want to," Gahler said. "It is important to note that the addition of restrictions directed at the law abiding gun owner has done nothing to reduce the criminal elements use of a firearm in the commission of crime. Look no further than Baltimore City with their record breaking firearm murder rate and over 900 shootings in 2015."

"This is a state that is viewed as one of, if not, the most restrictive states for firearms purchasers in the Country. To sum this up, no, I am unsure how these proposals might impact the all too numerous gun laws already on the books, but I am confident the President's proposals will have no impact on crime," he said.