A federal judge is scheduled to consider Tuesday whether to issue a temporary restraining order to halt new firearms restrictions set to take effect that day in Maryland.
The request for the order is part of a lawsuit filed by a collection of Maryland residents, gun store owners and Second Amendment advocates attempting to block implementation of some of the most stringent gun laws in the nation.
In court papers served on Gov. Martin O’Malley, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and the Maryland State Police, the plaintiffs are seeking to block the laws from going into effect because they “will burden impermissibly the fundamental constitutional rights” and cause “significant economic harm” to business.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, says the Firearms Safety Act of 2013 passed this year by the General Assembly would “unconstitutionally restrict” the right to keep and bear arms. It argues the new laws violate the Second Amendment by arbitrarily outlawing certain guns and prohibiting features and accessories that promote their effective and efficient use. It also says the prohibition on magazines holding more than 10 rounds is unusual and limits a gun owner’s ability to defend themselves.
Constitutional scholars said the lawsuit could eventually lead to more clarity from the U.S. Supreme Court on the boundaries of the right to keep and bear arms.
“What we’re seeing now are states in the U.S. having a variety of gun control laws that may or may not be constitutional,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “Until the Supreme Court rules, we have a very loose understanding of where the constitutional line is drawn.”
Along with limiting handgun magazines to 10 rounds, the Maryland law adds 45 guns to a list of banned assault weapons and requires gun buyers to submit their fingerprints and obtain handgun qualification licenses.
The lawsuit argues the restrictions deny gun owners equal protection under the law because retired police officers are not subject to provisions that ban certain weapons and limit magazine capacity. It also says that guidelines governing the list of banned assault weapons are vague and unspecified.
Current law requires a purchase application, which is forwarded to the licensing division of the Maryland State Police where officers conduct a background check. As of Tuesday, anyone looking to buy a gun must get a handgun qualifying license, which includes four hours of handgun training taught by a certified instructor and time spent firing at a range.
Mr. Gansler stated in an opinion in January that the proposed qualifying license was constitutional and law-abiding gun owners had nothing to worry about.
The lawsuit, backed by the National Rifle Association, lists as plaintiffs three state residents — including two veterans — two gun stores and four state-based groups that advocate for the rights of gun owners and dealers.
Gun litigation saw an upswing after the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision in the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned the city’s longtime ban on most handgun ownership.
“It’s a very new thing,” said Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute. “Heller was only decided five years ago. Before then, gun litigation was basically limited to prisoners challenging criminal convictions.”
The problem with the Heller decision, Mr. Hudak argued, was that while it gave some guidance “it did leave the question open about some gun requirements.”
“States were left open to their own decisions to implement gun control laws,” he said.
Ken Klukowski, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, voiced a similar opinion that lower courts “are desperately in need of firm guidance” from the higher court.
Whether in Maryland or any other of the pending cases out there, he said, lower courts need to know “exactly how high the barrier can be set on the right being fundamental and ensuring laws that burden that right are truly justified by sufficiently vital public interest.”
An answer from a judge could take anywhere from several months to more than a year, Mr. Klukowksi predicted, while Mr. Hudak said if the case went as far as the Supreme Court, it would likely not only take years to get there but also quite some time for a final ruling.
Regardless of the timeline, Mr. Shapiro said the issue of the right to bear arms isn’t going away.
“The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the scope of rights, individual rights and how they apply throughout the country,” he said. “It’s a new and growing field. We’re not done with Second Amendment cases, we’re only getting started.”