On March 5, U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg struck down the portion of Maryland’s gun control law that gave local Maryland authorities the discretion to deny a gun-carry permit when an applicant failed to provide a “good and substantial” reason for carrying the gun.
Prior to Legg’s decision, the discretion afforded to Maryland’s local authorities, commonly referred to as a “may issue” law, was shared by only nine other states.
The Maryland attorney general’s office plans to appeal Legg’s decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the success of such an appeal is doubtful. Legg’s decision follows two landmark opinions issued by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago.
In Heller, the Court struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun law on the grounds that the Second Amendment “guarantees the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” The Court’s McDonald holding clarified that guarantee applies not only to federal enclaves like Washington, D.C. but also to the states.
Many Alabamians may be surprised to discover that Alabama is one of those nine states with a current “may issue” law and the only one in the South. The other “may issue” states are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
Alabama’s gun-carry law provides that the “sheriff of a county … may issue a [gun-carry license] … if it appears that the applicant has a good reason to fear injury to his or her person or property or has any other proper reason for carrying a pistol.”
To their credit, sheriffs throughout Alabama have been solidly behind the Second Amendment rights of Alabamians. But what happens if future sheriffs fail to have the same respect for the Constitution? Should they or any other government official be able to arbitrarily determine acceptable reasons for exercising an individual constitutional right?
The Supreme Court may have already answered that question, albeit indirectly. In Heller, the Supreme Court noted “the very enumeration of the right [to keep and bear arms] takes out of the hands of government … the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the right is really worth insisting upon.”
In spite of Alabama’s reputation as a “gun-friendly” state, existing statutes that give law enforcement officers the ability to serve as gatekeepers to a constitutional right should be cause for concern, regardless of whether or not that ability is exercised.
Considering Judge Legg’s decision, Alabamians should recognize that the state’s “may issue” policies leave the door open for government encroachment on their Second Amendment rights. A constitutional guarantee hinging on the whim of government is no constitutional guarantee at all.
Cameron Smith, Alabama Policy Institute, Birmingham