Unlikely Pair Work to Clarify Gun Law

Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS — Delegate Michael Smigiel, a Republican from Cecil and a concealed-carry permit holder, is working with Delegate Tiffany Alston, a Democrat from Prince George’s, to clarify language in the state’s handgun carry law that Second Amendment advocates have long complained infringes on their rights.

At issue is a requirement to show a “good and substantial reason” to carry a gun, a cornerstone of Maryland’s law that forces applicants to establish a compelling need for the license.

When the General Assembly passed the state’s handgun carry law in 1972, giving state police discretion to award permits, it did not define what constitutes a good and substantial reason to carry a gun. As a result, state police have interpreted court decisions over the years to decide whether each applicant fits the criteria for a permit.

“The state police are enforcing a law they can’t define clearly,” said Alston, a lawyer. “The fact they’re using case law puts the ball back in our court. We need to go ahead and tackle the issue and get a definition.”

Almost annually, lawmakers file legislation aimed at repealing the good and substantial clause. Each has died in committee, including proposals filed in recent sessions by a former Harford County Democrat.

Smigiel and Alston are still weighing the possibility of filing legislation this session, though Friday marks the filing deadline for House bills to get a guaranteed hearing. In an attempt to avoid past failures, the two lawmakers will meet with Maryland State Police officials Tuesday to “try and get language we can all agree on,” Alston said.

But Smigiel, who grilled state police about handgun carry permits at a House committee hearing last month, said he doesn’t expect next week’s meeting to change anything.

“We won’t make any progress. The superintendent of state police takes his orders from the governor, and the governor is not about to do anything that changes the status quo in respect to issuing handgun permits,” Smigiel said. “Any change is going to have to come through the courts.”

The good and substantial clause is the basis for Maryland’s designation as a “may issue” state for concealed carry permits. It requires that Marylanders applying for a permit for “personal protection” must show “documented evidence of recent threats, robberies … or assaults,” that are supported by police reports and notarized statements from witnesses.

Other categories in the permit application, such as for business owners, have other requirements.

Gun-rights advocates argue Maryland’s law tramples on their Second Amendment rights and that state police arbitrarily award permits.

Maryland State Police officials defend the permitting process, saying each application is examined on a case-by-case basis. Without a definition, state police have been tasked to enforce the statute by developing formulas based on case law, Maryland State Police Lt. Jerry Beason told the House Judiciary Committee last month.

“The law has good and substantial reason. We have not been able to get a definition of that as of yet,” Beason said. “We would love to have that.”

If Smigiel had his way, the state would shift away from “may issue” standards and toward a “shall issue” system for handgun carry permits. That would require authorities to provide a license to applicants who meet specified criteria, generally a clear criminal and mental health background, without establishing a compelling reason.

Thirty-seven states are recognized as “shall issue,” according to the National Rifle Association. Three states — Vermont, Alaska and Arizona — don’t require a permit to tote a gun. Maryland is among eight states with “may issue” requirements, according to the NRA.

Making changes to the state’s concealed carry law has traditionally been an unpopular move among Democrats. But Delegate Luiz Simmons, a Democrat from Montgomery who favors gun control, said it might be time to give the good and substantial clause “some greater specificity” because the state police’s method for granting handgun permits is “loosey-goosey.”

“I think this standard is so loosey-goosey that I understand the frustration of people who work through the law and work through the system and get a response back and somebody says it wasn’t good and substantial,” said Simmons, a key member of the House Judiciary Committee, where gun bills are heard. “I am not unsympathetic.”