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In Annapolis, small but important steps on gun reform

One of the more gaping loopholes in Maryland’s ongoing efforts to keep dangerous weapons off the streets got a a step closer to being closed this week with the Senate’s approval of legislation to eliminate the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board. By a 30-16 vote on Monday, the Senate agreed that the board has outlived its usefulness — or, to be frank, had become something of a lapdog to gun owners instead of the quasi-judicial appeals board that it once was.

The measure still requires House approval, but given that the chamber passed similar legislation last year, the chances of full passage now seem good. And there’s a respectable chance that the Maryland General Assembly won’t stop there. A number of other bills related to gun violence — including one of special interest to those of us devastated by the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette last summer, legislation to require all purchasers of rifles and shotguns to undergo the same background check required of all handgun transactions — may yet emerge from the State House before the 2019 session ends in two weeks.

That would be something to celebrate. While none of the measures in question is exactly revolutionary (universal background checks have long enjoyed broad public support, including from gun owners), the business of attempting to put rational limits on gun ownership is fraught even in a state as politically left-of-center as Maryland. Single-issue Second Amendment absolutists are as much a part of the landscape of Annapolis as they are in other state capitals. And they launch into full hysterics at the drop of an AR-15, opposing measures as sensible as the federal ban on bump stocks that went into full effect on Tuesday. Why did it take 18 months after the Las Vegas massacre of 58 people for the United States to ban devices to turn semi-automatic rifles into machine guns? Perhaps because of the influence of extremist gun rights groups (or because we don’t have enough courageous leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern).

The handgun review board’s antics seemed particularly appalling. Under Maryland law, people who want a concealed carry permit must prove to the state police that they have a “good and substantial” reason to do so, such as an imminent threat to their life. The board exists so that applicants who are turned down, or have restrictions put on their permit, can ask for a second opinion. But instead of the cautious overview and rare dissent of years past, the board was hijacked by appointees who clearly held little regard for either Maryland law or the state police. Of the 269 permit decisions appealed to the board over the year ending last November, a whopping 83 percent were either overturned or modified by the board. That’s why it’s better to put appeals in the hands of the more even handed (and less prone to political pressure) Office of Administrative Hearings. Surely, Gov. Larry Hogan will ultimately agree and sign the bill into law, thus supporting the integrity of his own agency, the Maryland State Police.

Requiring a background check for private rifle and shotgun transfers has already won favor in the House but awaits a less certain future in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is often the chief obstacle to gun violence bills in Annapolis. We implore Chairman Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, to approve background checks, a minimal change in state law but one that is more than justified given what happened in Annapolis when a deranged man with a shotgun took the lives of five of our colleagues. Similarly, we would expect lawmakers to look favorably on pending bills that authorize a study on the trafficking of guns used in the commission of crimes.

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County where two teens were shot and 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey was killed by a 17-year-old gunman, and this week marks the 9-month anniversary of the Capital Gazette attack. But why stop there? The list of mass shootings goes on and on — and will likely continue to do so unless lawmakers take some sensible steps to address the violence including limiting access to firearms by people who should not possess them. These modest few steps toward overdue reforms are the least we should expect from state legislators who should be as sick and tired of gun violence as their constituents.

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