A man in a pink polo shirt stepped to a table, swore an oath to be truthful and explained why he should be able to carry a handgun with him at all times — not just when he’s working.
A contractor for an insurance brokerage, he travels often to picks up checks, money orders and credit card information from clients. His hours are erratic, he told members of the Maryland Handgun Permit Review Board, and he worries about being pulled over by a police officer late in the evenings or on weekends. Would an officer believe he’s on his way to a client and it’s OK he’s carrying a handgun?
“I just want to be within the law,” the man said. And that would be easier, he argued, without restrictions on his permit to take a gun with him.
A few months ago, the man — who, like all applicants, is not identified by state officials — likely would have been granted an unrestricted permit by the handgun board. More than 80 percent of the time last year, the handgun board granted gun owners’ requests — whether it was to issue a permit after the Maryland State Police denied one, or to lift or modify restrictions on the permit.
But on this hot July night inside the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore, the insurance contractor would walk away disappointed. He wasn’t making his case to the old handgun board. He appeared before a newly appointed board that — in an odd twist of political maneuvering — will only exist for a few more months.
Sgt. Brian Bonnell of the Maryland State Police took his turn before the board and said the insurance contractor shouldn’t have any problems. Officers understand that many jobs don’t fit the old 9-to-5 model.
“Businesses are not anticipated anymore to be Monday through Friday,” Bonnell told the board members.
The state’s position, Bonnell explained, is that handgun owners should only be allowed to carry their guns when needed.
“He can protect himself when he is conducting business,” Bonnell said.
The three handgun board members — a retired federal judge, a D.C.-based attorney and the former head of security for the Pentagon — wrote their votes on slips of paper and handed them over to an administrator. She read the result: “By a majority vote, the Maryland State Police prevails.”
He wasn’t the only gun owner who wouldn’t get what he wanted to walk away from the handgun board this night.
Of eight cases heard, the board upheld the Maryland State Police decisions four times. The other four applicants were granted delays —three to drum up more paperwork to prove their need for a permit and one to hire a lawyer.
Two applicants were no-shows and would be rescheduled.
This pattern has held the same under the new board: In three meetings so far, the board has granted only one applicant’s request. The rest were denied, or given more time. Applicants unhappy with the board’s ruling can appeal to a state administrative judge.
The vast majority of cases at the board involve permit holders who want their restrictions lifted. The most common restriction is that a gun owner can carry their gun only when on the job.
The new handgun board has a short shelf life after state lawmakers voted to abolish the panel, citing its high rate of overturning or modifying the state police decisions on “wear and carry” permits, commonly referred to as “concealed carry” permits.
Gov. Larry Hogan gave the handgun board a brief reprieve by vetoing the law abolishing the board. That means the board remains in existence until the Democratic-led General Assembly likely overrides the Republican governor’s veto when it’s next in session in January.
So the controversial handgun board is back in business, with a short timeline to clear a backlog of more than 500 requests to review permit denials and restrictions.
Pro-gun and anti-gun activists alike are watching the handgun board closely, attending meetings and taking notes on the proceedings.
Gun control advocates still think the board should be abolished.
“The board has a proclivity to be biased, whether they are biased pro-gun or anti-gun,” said Liz Banach, director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. Her group has been monitoring handgun board meetings for more than two years.
The board is inherently political, Banach said, because its members are appointed by the governor. So a governor who supports gun ownership is likely to appoint board members who would grant more permits and loosen restrictions, while a governor favoring gun control is likely to appoint board members who would deny permits.
Banach said the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings is a more appropriate venue. If lawmakers do indeed override Hogan’s veto and abolish the handgun board, handgun permit appeals would go to administrative hearing judges.
“The judges are all educated on this. They’re impartial,” Banach said.
The head of the state’s leading gun-rights advocacy group is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new board.
“It is not surprising to me that they are doing things differently. The question is what that difference means,” said Mark Pennak, executive director of Maryland Shall Issue.
Maryland Shall Issue and other gun rights groups have viewed the handgun board as a chance for gun owners to get a measure of justice in a state that has what they say are unjust gun laws.
The Maryland State Police restrictions on carry permits are unfair, they’ve argued, and the handgun board gave gun owners a better chance to fully exercise their Second Amendment rights.
So far though, the new board hasn’t been as permissive.
“Our strategy is to watch and learn what they are doing and to try to educate the board as much as we can,” Pennak said.
Paul Brockman, a spokesman for the grassroots group Patriot Picket, is less than thrilled with the new board. He’s been watching meetings since 2015 and obtained his own handgun carry permit in 2016.
“We’re not sure why Governor Hogan put people in there who, it looks to us, are just going to rubber-stamp the Maryland State Police,” he said.
Brockman said the controversies involving the handgun board could be eliminated if the Maryland State Police stopped putting restrictions on permits that limit when handgun owners can carry their guns. But Patriot Picket’s advocacy on that front has fallen on deaf ears in the Hogan administration, he said.
The stakes are high for handgun owners. If an individual is found guilty of carrying a handgun outside of the scope of their permit — say, while out shopping when the permit allows the gun only during work hours — it’s a misdemeanor. But because the charge carries a potential penalty of more than one year in jail, that’s enough for the individual to fail a federal background check for buying and owning guns.
Though the new handgun board’s rulings are starkly different from the old board’s, it’s not as though the board is stacked with members who are against gun ownership.
Board member Daniel F.C. Crowley of Bethesda, an attorney with a Washington, D.C., firm, has said frequently he sympathizes with the point of view of the permit applicants.
At one meeting, Crowley described the restrictions on carry permits as “crazy” and said Maryland has “a truly insane regulatory regime.”
Crowley told an applicant that he thinks Maryland’s laws will be overturned eventually in court. Until then, he said, “it’s the law that we have” and he is duty-bound to carry out the law.
The new chairman, Frederic Smalkin, a retired federal judge, opened the first meeting of the new board by discussing his gun ownership.
“I have had firearms all my life and I know how to use them,” Smalkin said at the meeting, according to a video posted online by Patriot Picket.
Smalkin declined to be interviewed for this article but said at the first meeting the board would “fairly and reasonably review” Maryland State Police decisions on permits.
For now, both sides are assessing the new board and working on their strategy.
Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence will press lawmakers to override Hogan’s veto in January, eliminating the handgun board once and for all.
“The board is obsolete and shouldn’t be in existence,” Banach said. “We’re definitely going to push hard for that override.”
And Patriot Picket and Maryland Shall Issue will keep advocating for gun owners as they adjust to the new board.
“We have to wait and see how this shakes out,” Pennak said.