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Gun dealer lawsuit claims Anne Arundel violence prevention law violates First Amendment rights

Four gun store owners are suing Anne Arundel County, saying a county law requiring them to hand out suicide prevention and conflict resolution pamphlets to gun purchasers violates their First Amendment rights.

In the lawsuit filed last month in federal court, the gun dealers and a gun owner advocacy group, argue an Anne Arundel County law that took effect April 10 forces them to participate in “compelled speech,” which is prohibited under the First Amendment, said Mark Pennak, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

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The bill, sponsored by council member Lisa Rodvien, an Annapolis Democrat, requires gun sellers to distribute pamphlets providing resource options such as a suicide hotline phone number, gun safety tips and information on gun locks. The options were created by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry trade association, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and distributed by the Anne Arundel County Health Department in an effort to reduce suicides and homicides in the county.

Pennak, who is the president of Maryland Shall Issue, a Second Amendment advocacy group that is a plaintiff in the complaint, said the law violates the dealers’ constitutional right to say or not say what they want. Information about suicide prevention and conflict resolution can be controversial and the dealers may disagree with the recommendations alluded to in the pamphlets, such as locking up firearms when not using them, calling the suicide prevention hotline or talking with a trained crisis counselor, he said.

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“The county is commandeering the dealers to convey, for the county, the message that the county wants,” Pennak said in an interview Thursday. “County government doesn’t get to tell a citizen, ‘You must say x.’”

County Attorney Greg Swain declined to get into specifics about the case, but said he believes the law is constitutional.

“We feel it’s of very important safety interest and we feel the burden on the gun dealers is minimal,” Swain said.

A teleconference to discuss scheduling for the case is set for Tuesday, Pennak said.

The county’s deadline for responding to the complaint is May 13.

The gun shops, Field Traders in Pasadena, Cindy’s Hot Shots in Glen Burnie, Pasadena Arms in Pasadena and Worth-A-Shot in Millersville and Maryland Shall Issue, , Pennak’s nonprofit advocacy group, are the same plaintiffs who filed a complaint in February against the county over a law requiring gun store owners to install certain equipment in their stores to protect the guns from smash-and-grab style burglaries.

In the April 11 complaint, the plaintiffs argue “opinions vary widely concerning, ‘gun safety, gun training, suicide prevention, mental health and conflict resolution,’” adding that the law can affect the atmosphere of the gun stores, making patrons feel less comfortable expressing themselves in the stores.

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The pamphlets are different from cigarette boxes or birth control packages with government-mandated messages on them, Pennak said, because those messages are in line with the services the vendor of those goods is providing.

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“Anne Arundel County dealers are not in the service of distributing advice about suicide or gun training or conflict resolution. They’re in the business of selling ammunition and firearms,” he said. “They just happen to be a convenient place for the county to coerce these dealers into distributing a message about something they don’t do.”

None of the gun store representatives could be reached for comment about the case.

The lawyers are hoping to persuade the court to find the law unconstitutional and unenforceable, Pennak said. He has advised his clients to continuing distributing the literature and abide by the law for now to avoid being fined. According to county code, violators will be fined $500 on the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses.

However, the gun stores won’t be fined either way because the county has decided not to enforce the law until the court has ruled on the case, Deputy County Attorney Hamilton Tyler said.

The county has proposed a scheduling order to the court but has yet to hear back, Tyler said. He expects the case will be resolved by the end of the year, if not before that, he said.

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The lawsuit involving the same parties from February, meanwhile, is working its way through the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. The case has been complicated by a state law passed last month that requires similar, but less specific, requirements for gun dealers to secure firearms, Pennak said.

A hearing is scheduled for May 24.


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