A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Anne Arundel County did not violate the Constitution in passing legislation requiring gun dealers to distribute suicide prevention and harm reduction pamphlets.
The legislation, sponsored by County Council member Lisa Rodvien, an Annapolis Democrat, and unanimously passed by the council in January 2022, required gun dealers to distribute pamphlets featuring a suicide hotline phone number, gun safety tips and information on gun locks. The Anne Arundel County Health Department was tasked with putting the pamphlets together and distributing them to sellers. Violators would be fined $500 on the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses, according to the law.
Three months after its passage, the guns rights organization Maryland Shall Issue challenged the law in court, filing a lawsuit on behalf of four Anne Arundel gun retailers: Cindy’s Hot Shots in Glen Burnie, Pasadena Arms and Field Traders in Pasadena, and Worth-A-Shot in Millersville. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland the day after the law went into effect in April. The county has not been enforcing the law while the litigation plays out.
In an opinion released Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher wrote that none of the claims made by Maryland Shall Issue rose to the level of the law being unconstitutional. Maryland Shall Issue argued the law was unconstitutional because the pamphlets would have a “chilling effect” on dialogues between sellers and buyers, the contents of the pamphlets could be offensive to buyers, and the relationship between suicides and guns is debatable.
“MSI speculates that its members ‘will be inhibited or will refrain from arguing or contesting that county message in the dealer’s store where the dealer is displaying and distributing the county’s literature,’” the opinion reads. “Without a specific example of the chilling impact experienced or threatened ... alleged harm remains speculative and not credible.”
Gallagher was also unpersuaded by Maryland Shall Issue’s argument that the pamphlets could be offensive and harmful to residents buying guns. The First Amendment has limitations, Maryland Shall Issue argued, including not embracing offensive speech that is intrusive upon an unwilling audience.
“MSI’s customer can simply ignore the county’s speech,” the decision reads. “It would be extremely easy for customers to toss out the pamphlets and never read them.”
Maryland Shall Issue also argued the correlation between guns and suicide is not strong enough to put the onus for distributing these pamphlets on gun sellers as guns are only one method by which people commit suicide. According to a 2022 report by The Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County, suicide was found to be the ninth most common cause of death in the county.
In an interview Thursday, Maryland Shall Issue President Mark Pennak said he doesn’t believe guns change suicide statistics. If someone is suicidal, they will likely find a way to carry out the suicide with or without purchasing a gun, he said.
“These dealers are not suicide vendors. They’re not in the business of the prevention of suicide. The judge cites that they are selling guns and yeah, but if that’s the test they ought to make automobile dealers distribute literature on global warming because they sell cars and cars [emit] CO2,” Pennak said. “There’s no end to the road you could take.”
However, in Gallagher’s view, providing safety information is already a common practice. Children’s toys must include a choking hazard warning. Pharmaceutical drugs require disclaimers about side effects.
“All information provided in the proposed literature relates to the responsible and safe use of the product at the heart of the commercial transaction,” the decision reads. “Providing information to promote the responsible use of a firearm is akin to commonplace laws requiring information regarding the safe use of other products.”
Gallagher’s decision aligned with the county’s argument, said Deputy County Attorney Hamilton Tyler. It asserted the First Amendment was not violated because the information in the pamphlet was accurate, which the court assessed by reviewing all the information in the brochure.
“The court looked at them and said, ‘The pamphlets are reasonably related [to the businesses] because the county has an interest in preventing suicide and violence and there is a proven correlation between gun access and suicide risk,” Tyler said. “The county, what it was attempting to impose upon the gun dealers, was reasonable.”
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Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and Rodvien expressed satisfaction that the law was upheld.
“Gun violence continues to plague our country and our communities,” Pittman said in a statement. “The District Court’s decision ensures our residents have access to valuable suicide prevention and conflict resolution information when they purchase firearms.”
Rodvien added that, now that the law has been upheld, she’s excited to see the impact it may have.
“I am pleased to read Judge Gallagher’s well-reasoned opinion acknowledging the county’s interest in reducing suicides and gun violence and informing gun owners about local conflict resolution resources and safe gun storage,” she said in a statement.
However, Pennak said he still believes there are several errors in the judge’s opinion and will continue fighting to have the law repealed.
“Respectfully, the judge got it wrong,” Pennak said. “We will be appealing.”
The appeal will be filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, Pennak said.