Maryland State Police officers Sgt. Brian Bonnell, standing from left, Sr. Trooper Brett Laziuck and two gun owners are sworn in before their testifiy to the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board during a recent meeting at the Fifth Regiment Armory. The board meets to rule on appeals from gun owners who are seeking concealed carry permits or have restrictions removed.
Maryland State Police officers Sgt. Brian Bonnell, standing from left, Sr. Trooper Brett Laziuck and two gun owners are sworn in before their testifiy to the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board during a recent meeting at the Fifth Regiment Armory. The board meets to rule on appeals from gun owners who are seeking concealed carry permits or have restrictions removed. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s Handgun Permit Review Board may have violated the state’s open meetings laws — but no one appears to be challenging it.

At a July meeting, board members agreed to go into a closed session to hear requests from two handgun owners regarding concealed carry permits. The board hears appeals of Maryland State Police decisions to either deny or restrict concealed carry permits for handgun owners.

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In past years, the board frequently went into closed sessions at the request of applicants who didn’t want an audience to hear details about their need for a permit.

Government bodies such as the handgun board are allowed to hold closed sessions for specific reasons and only after following a set of procedures.

In past years, the handgun board frequently heard permit appeals in closed session. But the board’s new chairman, former federal judge Frederic Smalkin, who was appointed in June, has not favored closed meetings.

When Smalkin was absent for the July 22 meeting, the meeting was run by member Daniel F.C. Crowley — and he and the board agreed to hear two permit cases in closed session.

But F. Todd Taylor Jr., the board’s executive director, warned that the board could be in violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Taylor said Smalkin instructed the board’s staff to modify the board’s agendas so that they no longer included a notice that the board might go into a closed session. That notice is one of the prerequisites for a public meeting to be legally held behind closed doors.

“What could happen is someone could file a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board,” Taylor warned the board.

Crowley and the other board members voted to go into closed session anyway. The few dozen people observing the meeting were ushered out into a hallway.

Though many in attendance seemed less than thrilled about the closed session, leaders of two advocacy groups that observe the board closely — Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence and Maryland Shall Issue — told The Baltimore Sun that they would not file complaints about the closed meeting.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board can issue opinions on whether meetings were improperly held, but it does not have any authority to penalize officials for violations.

The handgun board isn’t likely to be around for long after state lawmakers voted to abolish the panel, citing its high rate of overturning or modifying the state police decisions on “wear and carry” permits, commonly referred to as “concealed carry” permits. Gov. Larry Hogan gave the handgun board a brief reprieve by vetoing the law abolishing the board, so it remains in existence until the Democratic-led General Assembly likely overrides the Republican governor’s veto when its next in session in January.

At the July 22 meeting, the board reopened the meeting to the public after 45 minutes and announced the results of the two cases heard behind closed doors. In one case, the board upheld the Maryland State Police decision, and the other case was postponed to give the applicant more time to provide needed documentation.

Starting with the next meeting a week later on July 29, the language warning that the board may go into closed session was returned to the agenda.

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