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Guns and Annapolis

Our view: Maryland doesn’t need bump stocks — or backdoor efforts to loosen handgun restrictions

If there is a piece of legislation that deserves unanimous consent in the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session, it must surely be the proposal to ban “bump stocks,” the device that allows a user to turn a semiautomatic rifle into the equivalent of an automatic weapon. Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock had a dozen of them that he used for his rapid-fire assault that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Despite calls by Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike in the days after the Nevada massacre that bump stocks be banned nationally, no serious action has been taken to date either at the legislative or administrative levels.

That’s right. A device that even gun advocates admit has little purpose other than to accommodate gun range fantasies about toting an M-16 into combat — or worse, enable mass shootings — is still perfectly legal in this country and this state. We don’t know if there’s a prospective mass shooter in Maryland’s future, but why enable such a person? As if to point out the danger of inaction and the threat posed by arming the mentally ill, a gunman in Reno opened fire Tuesday on the street below him from an eighth floor condominium in a building where Paddock once owned a unit. The gunman was killed. No other injuries were reported.

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Would a state-level bump stock ban be fully curative? Obviously not. But it’s nonsensical to take no action because the federal government and quite a few state legislatures remain under the thumb of the National Rifle Association. It would be far better to have common sense gun laws applied uniformly, but we have about zero confidence of that happening anytime soon, certainly not while President Donald Trump is in the White House and Second Amendment absolutists hold control of both chambers of Congress. States can still make a difference. That was demonstrated this week when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up an effort to overturn Maryland’s 2013 ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. As a federal appeals court judge noted earlier, Second Amendment protections don’t extend to “weapons of war.”

The takeaway from that ruling should be that the door is open for jurisdictions, Maryland included, to take much-needed steps to protect their citizens from backdoor efforts to circumvent legitimate restrictions on firearms. And on that front, there’s a crack in Maryland’s gun laws that’s threatening to become a large fissure. Gun rights advocates, with a key assist from Gov. Larry Hogan’s appointees, have effectively loosened state standards on handgun carry permits. That’s a loophole that needs to be closed just as urgently (and perhaps more so) as bump stocks need to be banned.

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What’s happening? In a nutshell, the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board, the citizen group that considers appeals when the Maryland State Police declines an applicant’s handgun permit, appears to have become extra-generous in its rulings. According to the advocacy group Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, the gubernatorially-appointed board has gone from overturning 10 percent to 15 percent of MSP rulings to 60 percent last year, and the number of appeals is increasing. That suggests a lot of people who were judged ineligible to carry a gun — they may have violence in their past or, more likely, simply lacked a sound justification — are now packing heat. That’s not a formula for reducing gun violence in Maryland, particularly at a time when there are so many gun deaths in Baltimore.

The best solution (a proposal that was broached late in the last legislative session) is to take such decisions out of the hands of political appointees and give them to administrative law judges. Of course, another alternative would be to leave appeals in the hands of circuit court judges, but that would make the process more expensive and time-consuming, a punitive approach that isn’t needed. Maryland isn’t a “shall-issue” state that allows any Tom, Dick or Harry to carry a concealed handgun, and polls have always shown that most residents don’t want it that way. But that doesn’t make the state anti-gun, it just makes it common sensical. If the governor or anyone else wants to loosen those laws, let them take their case to lawmakers or perhaps to voters in 2018.

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