Appeals Court Strikes Down Maryland’s Handgun Licence Requirement

Under federal rules, the court’s decision goes into effect in 21 days.
Appeals Court Strikes Down Maryland’s Handgun Licence Requirement
A handgun in a holster in a file photo. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
Tom Ozimek

In a victory for gun rights advocates, a federal appeals court has struck down Maryland’s rules for obtaining a handgun as unconstitutionally restrictive.

In a 2-1 split decision from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond on Nov. 21, Maryland’s handgun qualification license (HQL) requirement—which a gun rights advocacy group denounced as “draconian”—was found to be unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.

“In Maryland, if you are a law-abiding person who wants a handgun, you must wait up to thirty days for the state to give you its blessing. Until then, there is nothing you can do; the issue is out of your control,” Judge Steven Agee wrote for the majority, with Judge Julius Richardson joining.

“Maryland has not shown that this regime is consistent with our Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Judge Agee added.

The appeals court found that the decade-old HQL law, which requires fingerprinting, training, and up to a 30-day wait, violated the Constitution under a new legal test for gun laws introduced by last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling known as “Bruen.”

That Supreme Court decision basically held that a firearm regulation is unconstitutional unless the government can show that it is consistent with the nation’s historical tradition.

“Bruen effected a sea change in Second Amendment law,” Judge Richardson wrote in the opinion for the majority, explaining that before the landmark decision courts used a two-step interest-balancing framework to analyze firearm regulations.

“Yet the Supreme Court held in Bruen that this approach was ‘one step too many,’” the judge continued, noting that the Supreme Court then supplied an analysis that centers on the Second Amendment’s text and history.

When the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, then the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct, and, at that point, the challenged regulation is deemed unconstitutional unless the government can show that the regulation is consistent with America’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.

“Maryland’s law fails the new Bruen test,” the majority opinion reads.

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan disagreed and, in a dissenting opinion, argued that the majority “fundamentally misapplies Bruen,” and that the majority’s “hyperaggressive view of the Second Amendment would render presumptively unconstitutional most non-discretionary laws in this country requiring a permit to purchase a handgun.”

Judges Agee and Richardson were appointed by Republican presidents, while Judge Keenan was appointed by a Democrat.

Under federal rules, the appeals court’s decision goes into effect in 21 days. Maryland has 14 days to seek a rehearing before the full 4th Circuit or 90 days to seek review in the Supreme Court.

The ruling was met with mixed reactions.


The National Rifle Association (NRA), which unsuccessfully challenged Maryland’s HQL requirement back in 2016, hailed the latest ruling.
“This is a significant ruling for the Second Amendment and every American who cherishes our constitutional freedoms,” Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA’s legislative arm (the NRA-ILA), said in a statement.

“Acquiring a handgun in Maryland is a draconian process,” the group said in a statement, before explaining that getting a Maryland HQL requires taking a four-hour class with classroom and live-fire components, then undergoing a background check that includes submitting a complete set of fingerprints, and then waiting up to 30 days for the state to process the application.

“But obtaining that license does not allow one to purchase a firearm,” the NRA-ILA stated. “The individual must undergo an additional background check and another seven-business-day waiting period when acquiring a handgun, and then a NICS check must be completed when the firearm is transferred.”

Under the federal rules, the decision goes into effect in 21 days with the issuance of the court’s mandate. The state has 14 days to seek en banc review in the Fourth Circuit. If it does so, the mandate is stayed until such time as such a petition for en banc review is either denied or after an en banc decision if en banc review is granted. And, of course, the state can also seek review in the Supreme Court.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, said in a statement he was disappointed in the ruling and would “continue to fight for this law.”

“Common-sense gun laws are critical to protecting all Marylanders from the gun violence that has terrorized our communities.” Mr. Moore said. “I am determined to do more than just give thoughts and prayers and attend funerals—and that’s why this law is vital to our administration’s commitment to keeping guns out of the wrong hands and saving lives.”

Mr. Moore added that his administration was reviewing the ruling and “looking at all options.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, also commented on the decision, saying he was “incredibly frustrated and disappointed” in the ruling.

“In a time where the proliferation of firearms is threatening the safety of our communities, we should be more, not less, careful about who has access to these tools of violence,” he wrote in a post on social media.

A gun-rights group called Maryland Shall Issue was one of the plaintiffs in the seven-year-old lawsuit that a lower court judge twice rejected, prompting the appeal.

“It was designed to be an obstacle to keep people from exercising their constitutional rights,” Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, said of Maryland’s HQL requirement in remarks to Maryland Matters.

The NRA-ILA’s executive director said that the appeals court’s ruling “sends a clear message: law-abiding Marylanders’ fundamental right to self-defense must not be infringed.”