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This is neither the time nor the way to loosen Maryland’s handgun permit restrictions

This is neither the time nor the way to loosen Maryland’s handgun permit restrictions
Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board chairman Frederic Smalkin, left, makes comment to a gun owner during a recent board meeting at Fifth Regiment Armory. The board has recently become more apt to deny requests to loosen handgun permit restrictions. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Given the recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, many in Maryland may have been shocked (and rightfully so) to learn that the Maryland State Police decided Monday to loosen certain limits on handgun permits. Specifically, MSP unilaterally ruled that business owners with restricted concealed carry permits should be able to carry their guns at all hours. In other words, the owner of a company already granted a permit because he makes cash deposits at 4 p.m. on weekdays, for example, can legally tote his firearm around any time of the day — assuming he now applies for that modification and pays a nominal fee.

This is a deeply disappointing move for several reasons, not the least of which is its tone deafness. A state police spokesman confirms the final decision was made Monday afternoon and without regard to the weekend’s events. What an awful message to send Marylanders. At a time when the nation is mourning two senseless tragedies and looking for solutions to gun violence, MSP is taking steps that will result in putting more guns on the streets. At the very least, this was a decision best made at a later date. But, of course, the circumstances are really much worse than that.

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Maryland’s restrictions on concealed carry permits have long been a target of Second Amendment absolutists. And one of the ways they’ve sought to get around the law is through the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board, which, in recent years, has made it a practice to overrule MSP limits on what hours a concealed handgun can be carried around. The Maryland General Assembly, having gotten wise to this trend, passed legislation earlier this year to get rid of the board and put appeals in the hands of administrative law judges. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the measure, but an override of the veto is likely coming in January.

But, wait, there’s more. Governor Hogan’s latest appointees to the board seem to have turned over a new leaf. As recently as last week, Chairman Frederic Smalkin and other board members were busy refusing to modify restrictions that their predecessors lifted about 80 percent of the time. So what happens when one loophole closes? Often, it means another opens. Is it possible that MSP caved to political pressure that has mounted since the new board started asserting itself? Everyone involved is being tight-lipped about exactly what conversations might have taken place.

The governor’s spokesman has said Mr. Hogan did not lobby MSP Superintendent William M. Pallozzi, but he certainly can now. Governor Hogan should pick up the telephone and tell Mr. Pallozzi this isn’t the way to make such a critical gun safety decision and ask him to reverse it. Better to have such matters debated in public. If not before the state legislature then perhaps as a formal rule making with public hearings and legislative oversight.

We will grant that business owners already vetted as having good and substantial reason to carry a concealed handgun aren’t the biggest public safety threat going. Although we believe a profusion of concealed carry permits is a recipe for more accidents and more frequent escalation of disputes to bloodshed, we don’t question the motives of the business owners. But if this is such a reasonable choice, let’s not make it in a backroom.

The governor has long presented himself as open to restrictions on gun ownership. He has endorsed red flag laws, for example, giving law enforcement the right to temporarily remove guns from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others. But he’s not exactly been at the vanguard of gun control either, having once earned an A-minus rating from the National Rifle Association and, as a candidate for office, spoke out against the state’s assault weapons ban. His veto of legislation dissolving the handgun board probably endeared him to the gun rights crowd even if the subsequent actions of former Judge Smalkin have not.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t be putting more guns on the street if we can help it. This change of policy is entirely arbitrary and needlessly sweeping. Let individual business owners make their case to the review board. Or better yet, to a judge once the board is dissolved. That the MSP reversal of policy had to happen in the shadow of Dayton and El Paso only underscores that such choices need to be made in the light of day. And with the interest of all Marylanders in mind and not just those of Maryland Shall Issue or other gun rights groups.

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