One of the fundamental purposes of local government is to protect residents from harm. Stolen firearms represent just such a danger so Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s proposal to create a license — and most importantly, set minimum security standards — for gun shops and visiting gun shows is a logical choice. It’s not unlike a building code that doesn’t prevent anyone from owning a building but makes sure that sensible safety standards are met. Given the county’s recent experience with thefts from gun stores, the proposed new standards are overdue.
Needless to say, the initial reaction to the plan has fallen along the customary lines of gun safety legislation with outfits like Maryland Shall Issue, an organization that would happily arm much of the populace under virtually any circumstance, complaining that secured guns are a threat to the Second Amendment. Even some gun shop owners perceive a nefarious plot to wipe out their livelihoods, apparently one lock and video camera at a time. But here’s another possibility: Making sure gun shops and shows are responsible stewards of their merchandise might help keep them in business and protect Baltimore County residents from harm.
The dots aren’t difficult to connect. Over the past two years, at least seven county gun shops have been burglarized resulting in the theft of multiple firearms including 51 weapons in just one incident. Stolen guns are often used in crimes because they can’t be traced. Of the 23,000 stolen firearms recovered by police nationwide between 2010 and 2016, the majority were acquired in connection with crimes, often violent ones, according to a 2017 investigation by The Trace, the nonprofit website that follows gun-related news. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports that a total of 5,652 firearms were stolen nationwide in burglaries from dealers in 2018 alone. Such stolen firearms represent a clear threat to public safety.
And while it’s all very well to debate the best way to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals or the severely mentally ill, is there really any serious debate about whether preventing guns from being stolen in the first place is a good idea? Certainly, we could rely on gun shop owners to secure their weaponry as they would seem to have an economic incentive to do so. But what if some individual just doesn’t see the need and would prefer to take the risk of theft rather than spend money on security? We don’t put up with that approach from restaurant owners (food safety is regulated) or movie houses (fire exits are mandated) or even ditch diggers, who are required to shore up trenches so they don’t collapse. By regulating all gun stores equally, they all remain competitive in the marketplace with each facing the same security costs.
Admittedly, gun regulations are generally the province of the state and federal government. But there is a provision in state law that carves out an exception for local government. Under Section 4 209(b), the county can regulate gun sales "in or within 100 yards of “a park, church, school, public building, and other place of public assembly.” As it happens, all Baltimore County gun stores but one (Duffy’s Gun Room in Sparks) fit that criteria. Reasonable safety requirements imposed on businesses of all types have long been within the county’s province. And what the county executive is talking about (the actual legislation has not yet been finalized but is scheduled to be introduced to the County Council on Dec. 16) is hardly unreasonable. The expected requirements include alarm systems, physical barriers like bollards to prevent people driving cars into the building and a secured cage in which to keep guns after hours. Mr. Olszewski even contemplates giving county police the authority to negotiate potential alternatives.
Do we want Baltimore County’s gun stores to go out of business? No, actually, we do not. Even in the midst of so much gun crime in neighboring Baltimore, we recognize the constitutional right to bear arms. We simply believe that, like all rights, it must be balanced against the rights of others. You have a right to throw your fist until it comes in contact with your neighbor’s chin. Preventing gun theft is not unlike preventing ditch collapses; there’s a broad public interest in ensuring safety. Mr. Olszewski’s effort raises at least one important question, however: Shouldn’t every subdivision in Maryland have similar protections in place? In this, Baltimore County may soon set the standard.