John H. Michel looked at a sheet of paper in front of him and read off the next number on a list to a few dozen people in the dimly lit conference room.
“43899665?” He asked. “Do we have Mr. or Mrs. 43899665 in the house?”
After a few moments, when no one stepped forward, Michel went on to the next applicant for a “wear and carry” handgun permit.
The list was long for last week’s meeting of the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board in Crownsville, and Michel and his fellow board members had yet to hear from paramedics, an insurance broker, a real estate agent and others.
A man wearing a lightweight jacket stepped forward to make his case for why he should be allowed to carry a handgun at all times.
For decades, the board operated with little scrutiny, handling a few dozen cases a year. But the board grew more permissive in recent years under appointees of Gov. Larry Hogan, routinely overturning or loosening Maryland State Police decisions on permit applications, and its caseload has grown. Hundreds of gun owners now appeal their denials each year.
That’s drawn scrutiny from the Maryland General Assembly, where senators refused last month to confirm the appointment of three members to the board and introduced legislation that would abolish the board. If the bill becomes law, people would appeal instead to a state administrative law judge.
“We’ve seen this permit review board continually overturning Maryland State Police recommendations,” said Sen. Pamela Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill to eliminate the handgun board. “I have great respect for the Maryland State Police and I think it is wrong that we are overturning their recommendations so often.”
A spokeswoman for Hogan was noncommittal about the governor’s position.
“If making changes to this board is a priority for the legislature, the governor will certainly consider any legislation that reaches his desk,” said Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for Hogan.
In total, 22,177 Marylanders have handgun permits, according to state police. The state police received about 4,400 new applications and 5,400 renewal applications last year — and denied about 500 of those applications.
The governor nominates people to three-year terms on the five-member board that hears appeals of those denials, with his appointments needing the state Senate’s confirmation. The board has one vacancy, leaving it with four members. Three of them, serving since last spring, were up for a vote this year on their confirmation and were rejected by the Senate amid the move to abolish the board. They can continue serving until the end of the General Assembly session in early April, at which time Hogan would need to appoint new members.
Of 269 cases the board reviewed from December 2017 through November 2018, the board reversed state police decisions 77 times and modified them 145 times. Generally, reversals are when the board decides to grant a permit that police denied and modifications remove any restrictions placed on a permit, such as only allowing the applicant to carry a handgun while at work.
Combined, that’s a rate of overturning or modifying state police decisions 83 percent of the time — which some say is too permissive.
Supporters of the board say it’s a necessary check on the state police.
It can be challenging to learn more about the board’s decision-making.
During meetings, board members refer to applicants only by their application number. There are no microphones, making it difficult for the audience to hear exchanges between applicants and board members. People are allowed by law to wait until the end of the night and have their case heard in private.
The applicants’ case files are not public, and the board’s minutes reflect only the outcome of a case: overturned, modified or sustained.
Last week’s meeting offered a glimpse of the type of cases heard. Seven cases involved applicants who were denied a permit, and the board overturned each denial on a unanimous vote. Another six applicants appealed restrictions on when they could carry their guns — and the board dropped those restrictions in all six cases.
In one case, police had denied an insurance broker a permit, in part on the grounds that he did not provide a letter from his employer saying the company wanted him to have a gun on the job. A letter from the applicant’s employer to police said only that the company didn’t object to him having one.
Michel encouraged the insurance broker to tell the board “objectively” about his fears of being robbed while on the job. The man talked about meeting clients in different neighborhoods and taking payments from them. And he described seeing a “roving pack” of kids once while leaving a restaurant in downtown Baltimore.
“Baltimore, where I do quite a lot of business, can’t control the crime,” the broker said.
After a brief discussion, the board decided the broker should have an unrestricted permit.
Observers from Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, who have been attending meetings for three years, say board members tell applicants with criminal histories how to get convictions expunged so they qualify for permits.
Elizabeth Banach, the group’s executive director, said the process would be improved if there was an unbiased venue for permit appeals. She supports the bill that would abolish the handgun board and send appeals instead to administrative law judges.
“All we’re asking is that this be moved to judges who understand the law,” she said. “They are educated. They are nonpartisan.”
Gun ownership advocates disagree. More than two dozen testified Friday at a legislative hearing in Annapolis, taking exception to the state police putting restrictions on permits. The board, they say, allows those restrictions to be lifted.
Mark Pennak, president of the advocacy group Maryland Shall Issue, said the restrictions often are “hopelessly vague.” Gun owners are “terrified” they’ll encounter police and be arrested for carrying a gun outside the restrictions on their permit, he said.
Handgun board supporters call this “the Fifth Amendment trap.” They worry that as a gun owner tries to explain to an officer why they’re carrying a gun and how they are complying with their permit, they’ll say something that could lead to them being incorrectly charged with committing a crime.
Board member Carol Loveless told senators that she and her colleagues take their jobs seriously. She owns a security company, Michel is a lawyer and another member is a police detective, she said. All three were appointed by Hogan.
Loveless said it’s frustrating that lawmakers are considering eliminating the board without discussing concerns with board members.
“No one ever talked to the board,” she said. “No one ever came to a meeting.”
Friday’s legislative hearing briefly turned tense when a former board member, Shari Judah, was hauled out by a state trooper after she refused to conclude her testimony when her time was up. Judah yelled through multiple requests to end her remarks and continued to shout as she was led out: “You’re a disgrace! You’re a disgrace!” Judah, a Hogan appointee who served from 2016 through 2018, was not charged.
Beidle, the bill sponsor, said with an appointed board, there’s a chance that under some governors it may be too permissive and under other governors, it might be too restrictive.
“Finding a balanced board is the difficult piece with this,” Beidle said.
The bill to eliminate the handgun board is being reviewed by two Senate committees — Executive Nominations and Judicial Proceedings — and would need a vote from both to advance to the full Senate. A companion bill will have a hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee.
The Democratic leaders of the General Assembly — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch — support the bill.