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Md. gun rights lawsuits are firing blanks

Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the strong and well considered gun control measures that go into effect in Maryland tomorrow is the tepid challenge gun rights advocates have made to them. Months after announcing that they would not seek to petition the law to referendum — a nod to the inevitable, given polls showing that 80 percent of Marylanders support the law's provisions — gun advocates filed a pair of lawsuits last week seeking to block implementation of two elements: a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines and a requirement that handgun purchasers obtain a license and provide their fingerprints to the Maryland State Police. Neither one makes a strong argument.

The plaintiffs in these lawsuits — some individual gun owners, gun rights organizations, a sporting goods store and others — do not claim that a handgun purchaser licensing system that requires applicants to submit their fingerprints is unconstitutional per se. They would be hard pressed to do so, since other states have had similar schemes in place for years. Rather, they allege that Maryland can't possibly be ready to implement such a system on Oct. 1, particularly given the existing months-long backlog in processing applications under the old rules. As a result, the plaintiffs argue, allowing the law to go into effect will amount to a de facto ban on the purchase of handguns and run afoul of two recent Supreme Court decisions.

If that is, in fact, their concern, then the plaintiffs might have done better to call the state police and ask whether the system will be ready to go tomorrow rather than going to the trouble of filing a lawsuit. What they would have discovered is that the application is set to go online tomorrow and that the state police has hired more than 30 people to handle the paperwork. In fact, those workers have been on staff since July and have gotten plenty of practice on the old background check process, which is similar in substantial ways to the new one. Starting tomorrow, though, those workers will be assigned exclusively to handling the new licensing requests, which by law must be completed within 30 days.

As for the months-long backlog of background checks the state police is grappling with now as a result of an unprecedented spike in gun sales since last year's school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the state has added more personnel, and the state police has made the wise and fair decision not to subject anyone who bought a gun before Oct. 1 to the new requirements. (Amazingly, the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are mad about that, too.)

The request for an injunction on Maryland's ban on assault weapons and on ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds does make a direct claim that the law is unconstitutional, but it requires some twists and leaps to get there. The argument is predicated on a Supreme Court decision that overturned a ban on handguns. The majority in that case, District of Columbia v. Heller, upheld an individual "right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home." Maryland's law violates that, the plaintiffs allege, by outlawing an entire class of weapons in common use.

But that logic requires the court to accept the notion that the banned weapons are defensive in nature. Quite the contrary. The characteristics that served to land a weapon on the banned list — such as a folding stock or a muzzle flash suppressor — were chosen specifically because they make the weapons better suited to concealment and to inflicting mass casualties. Moreover, the plaintiffs make no argument with the state's generation-old ban on assault pistols. If Maryland can ban them, then why not assault rifles?

We expect that both the licensing and assault weapons bans will survive these challenges. But it is important to note that the 2013 gun control act contains many other provisions designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands, including greater information sharing and new standards to prevent those suffering from mental disorders from getting guns and greater authority for the state police to investigate gun dealers to make sure they are complying with the law. No piece of legislation can prevent all violent crime, but the law the General Assembly passed and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed represents a thoughtful effort to protect Marylanders both from mass shootings and from the much more common street crime that plagues our cities.

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