RICHMOND, VA. ——On a roll in recent years, a gun-rights group pressed its advantage in a federal appeals court Wednesday, seeking to extend Second Amendment rights through a challenge to Maryland's handgun permit laws.
"We're not challenging the constitutionality of having a licensing system," Alan Gura, a lawyer for the Second Amendment Foundation, told the three-judge panel in a case involving a Baltimore County man's permit renewal. Rather, he argued that Maryland unnecessarily restricts the right to carry firearms.
Gura said the issue is a narrow one, but much of the argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit revolved around how to apply recent Supreme Court decisions to the public carrying of firearms, which could have far-reaching implications.
In two other cases Gura won, the high court struck down Illinois and District of Columbia laws that effectively outlawed handgun ownership. But the court did not directly address the right to bear arms for self-defense outside the home.
The Maryland case offers gun-rights advocates a chance to win a broader reading of the Second Amendment, upending the state's handgun permit process along the way.
Under state law, Marylanders must show "good and substantial reason" to obtain a handgun permit. In March, a federal district judge struck down that requirement, ruling it unconstitutional.
The Maryland attorney general's office, fearing a spike in gun violence, appealed the decision, and the federal court of appeals allowed the law to stand while the case is resolved.
Gura argued Wednesday that because the Supreme Court has held that bearing arms is a fundamental right, people do not need to give public officials a reason they should be allowed to exercise it. He asked the court to consider the implications of applying that standard to other rights such as speech.
"There's no way we can apply such a restriction to the right to bear arms," he said.
But Matthew Fader, an assistant Maryland attorney general who argued for the state, said opponents of the permit process want to open up a general right for anyone to carry a lethal weapon "for no reason at all," other than their subjective fears.
Maryland does not bar people from taking guns out for sport, military activities or hunting, Fader said. He argued that the court could sidestep the constitutional question, finding that the gun-carry permits are justified on safety grounds without ruling on broader issues.
The original lawsuit was brought by Raymond Woollard, a Baltimore County man denied a permit renewal in 2009. He was not in court Wednesday.
Woollard originally sought a gun-carry permit after his son-in-law entered Woollard's house on Christmas Eve 2002, intending to take his wife's car keys and drive to Baltimore to buy drugs, according to court filings. Woollard and his son — both armed — confronted the man.
Shortly after, Woollard applied for a permit to carry a gun; it was granted and renewed once. But in 2009, a second renewal was denied, and an appeals board found he could show no good reason to carry a weapon.
The Government Accountability Office says Maryland is one of 10 "may issue" states, meaning that officials have latitude to decide whether residents should receive a gun-carry permit. Most states follow a doctrine known as "shall issue," requiring officials to issue a license to any individual who meets objective criteria such as not having a felony conviction or a history of mental illness.
Maryland State Police estimate that there are 12,000 gun-carry permits in circulation. Gun groups expect that number to exceed 100,000 if the law is changed, based on figures from other states that switched to a shall-issue standard.