Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan’s ranking with the National Rifle Association was lowered from an “A” to a “C,” a product of his support for some sensible gun control bills in recent years including “red flag” legislation that gives police and family members the ability to petition a court to remove firearms from someone who presents a danger to himself or others. With his veto last week of legislation to abolish Maryland’s Handgun Permit Review Board, it appears he’s due for an upgrade.
What was more surprising than his veto — Republican support for gun control nationwide is not exactly in abundance these days — was the labored reasoning behind it. In his veto letter, Governor Hogan described the bill as a “another in a long series of politically motivated and ill-conceived power grabs” by the Democratically-controlled legislature. Had the governor been talking about a measure that somehow put authority in the hands of the General Assembly, that would make perfect sense. Had it diminished the power of the Hogan administration’s Maryland State Police to interpret the law, that would be logical, too. But the bill in question did neither of those things. It’s purpose was — drum roll, please — to transfer authority over the appeals of “wear-and-carry” permits to unbiased administrative judges with a better understanding of Maryland law.
In other words, it was to give state law, specifically its longstanding limitations on who should be allowed to carry a handgun in public, a chance to be interpreted fairly. Here’s another way to look at what the bill did — its intent was to close a loophole that the pro-gun community has been exploiting during the Hogan years to put more weapons in people’s hands. And now that loophole is apparently about to be reopened. The consequence is that hundreds more guns are likely to be put on the streets which, in turn, will likely mean more “diversions” of guns from the law-abiding to the criminal.
Let’s review how we got to this point. Created in 1972, the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board has the job of deciding who qualifies for a permit to wear, carry or transport a handgun. Those who are turned down by the MSP or believe their permits are too restrictive (perhaps allowing them to carry in work-related circumstances only) have long been allowed to appeal it to a five-member civilian board. The system worked fine, but in recent years, that board has evolved from a reasonable check on state police to a pro-gun advocacy organization. Rare is the appeal that isn’t granted or restrictive permit that is not amended. That’s why the General Assembly refused to approve Governor Hogan’s most recent nominees and passed legislation revoking the board.
And the consequence? Putting the same appeals authority in the hands of the Office of Administrative Hearings was not only sensible, it’s probably what lawmakers would have done decades ago if the OAH had existed, but it wasn’t created until 1990. Administrative law judges are simply far more knowledgeable about state law than a group of civilians, particularly a group with a chip on their shoulders. If such judges aren’t fair, then the Hogan administration has a much bigger problem than the handgun board. Maryland is one of at least 27 states where administrative law judges have appeals authority over a broad range of regulatory decisions.
How biased had the handgun board become? It was upholding MSP decisions less than 15 percent of the time. Fifteen percent! If that’s not bias, then Mr. Hogan must have the most inept Maryland State Police in history. The leadership of any agency that is reversed or amended 85 percent of the time ought to be dismissed. That’s a miserable record. And it wasn’t the case for most of the years the handgun board has been in existence.
Now, we understand that there are gun devotees who think everyone should be able to carry a loaded gun wherever and whenever they like. But the people of Maryland don’t see it that way. Reasonable restrictions on gun ownership and use have done just fine on the statewide ballot — as have candidates who support them. Mr. Hogan has certainly backed a few. Trying to repeal restrictions by this backdoor method should be regarded as a non-starter, yet Governor Hogan’s office has indicated he plans to appoint Handgun Permit Review Board members on an interim basis shortly so they can get back in business dealing with a backlog of at least 520 appeals.