Fate of Handgun Board Unclear as Senate Panel Rejects Hogan Nominees

State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard) has introduced legislation to eliminate the state Handgun Permit Review Board.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s three nominees to the Handgun Permit Review Board were voted down in committee Monday night, marking the third straight year nominees have failed to make it through the confirmation process to a board that has come under increasing criticism from Democratic lawmakers.

The Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted 6-12 in favor of the nominees, Bryan Yukio Fischer, Carol O. Loveless and John H. Michel, with a majority voting against their confirmation.

Senators who supported the nominees said it was an unfortunate vote that had nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominees and more to do with displeasure about the board’s role in concealed carry permitting.

“It was politics at its worst,” Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) said. “You held three good people up. …They didn’t get a fair shake here.”

Democratic members of the committee have expressed concern for the last few weeks about the Handgun Permit Review Board’s frequency in overturning permitting decisions made by Maryland State Police. Fischer, Loveless and Michel have been serving on the panel since April as recess appointees.

Of 269 cases heard since December 2017, the board has reversed the decision of the Maryland State Police 77 times and modified restrictions 145 times. The recommendation of state police has been sustained only 37 times. But even that figure is inflated, Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) said Monday night. In 15 of those 37 cases, the applicant didn’t show up to a hearing by the board, so the state police decision was automatically sustained.

“Ninety-plus percent of the time, they’re reversing or modifying,” Feldman said. “…If you’re reversing state police 90-plus percent of the time, you’re operating on your own criteria.”

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) read an anecdote from Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that has volunteers sit through the board’s meetings and has advocated for reforms to the board.

According to the advocacy group, there was a case in which a man applied for an unrestricted permit because he said he was attacked in his driveway after coming home from a casino. The unrestricted permit was denied by state police because the man considered gambling his hobby, not profession, and there was no evidence to substantiate his claim of being robbed.

The board concluded that the man’s testimony about being attacked was sufficient and overturned the restrictions placed on his permit.

“That’s not the standard we should expect,” said Ferguson, a leading critic of the board.

Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) noted that most of the appeals coming to the board for review are by gun owners who have been given some form of a wear and carry permit, but are seeking to relieve some of the restrictions placed on the permit. In urging the committee not to vote down the nominees – a majority of the panel – Hershey said the board needed to be able to continue to function and consider appeals by law-abiding gun owners.

“You have to be able to give these people their rights under the law,” Hershey said.

Several members of the committee complained that the same disagreements have come up year after year, often having little to do with the nominees and more to do with the way the board functions.

The board, established in 1972, hears appeals from those who apply to the Maryland State Police for concealed carry permits; appeals from other agencies in the state are considered by administrative law judges at the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Efforts to repeal the board in the past have been unsuccessful.

“If you don’t like the board, put a daggone bill in to do away with the board. That’s the simple thing,” said Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett). “Otherwise, these people, I believe, are well qualified.”

A bill to repeal the board was introduced in the House of Delegates on Monday night by Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard). No such bill has been introduced in the Senate, but Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) is drafting a bill to look at the board, either as a repeal or as an issue to be studied in the interim.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) noted that the board’s composition of gubernatorial nominees means it could always be comprised of members that align with the current governor’s political leanings. And reforms last year that allowed the state police to appeal the board’s decisions to the Office of Administrative Hearings now puts state police employees in the uncomfortable position of appealing the decisions of gubernatorial appointees.

Miller voted for the nominees in the Executive Nominations Committee, but said he would encourage the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to pass legislation concerning the board again this year.

Nominees to the board have faced particularly tough questions during the nomination process since Hogan was elected. The last time appointees to the board were confirmed by the Senate was in 2016. And in that year, one nominee was voted down after falling one vote shy of the 24-member majority.

It is unclear what will happen to the five-member board with three of four current members voted down by the committee. If the full Senate votes unfavorably on the nominees, they are effectively immediately fired; the committee’s report is expected to reach the Senate floor Thursday. If Hogan decides to withdraw their nominations before a full Senate vote, the members could remain on the board until new appointments are made or the legislative session ends, whichever comes first.

Hogan’s office gave a general statement about the vote late Monday night.

“We are looking into the legal ramifications and implications for the board, but it seems that politics unfortunately came into play here,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said. “If the legislature wants to make changes to a statutory entity they can pass legislation – they shouldn’t try to weaponize the confirmation process as an alternative to doing their jobs.”

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