The Maryland Senate narrowly voted down three nominees to the state’s Handgun Permit Review Board early Friday afternoon.
The 21-25 vote came after nearly an hour of debate over a topic that has become a perennial source of consternation within the Senate chamber.
Bryan Yukio Fischer, Carol O. Loveless and John H. Michel will be able to continue serving on the board until the end of the legislative session or until new appointments are made by the governor.
A number of Democrats said they were voting against the nominees by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in part because of the board’s tendency to overrule the findings of Maryland State Police in deciding whether to grant concealed carry permits to gun owners.
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 was sustained only 37 times.
Republicans tried to put off the vote for one week, a motion that was defeated 16-30.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) said the vote on the nominees reflected unhappiness with the panel’s statutory function and that an unfavorable vote would unfairly blot the public resumes of the nominees.
But Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said it was impossible to distinguish the members from the board’s recent decisions.
“It’s the wrong frame for this conversation,” Pinsky said. “Three of the people before us have basically ignored what the state police have recommended, and said you know what, we think everybody should have a gun under almost any circumstance and we’re going to reverse [state police] eight out of 10 times.”
Pinsky said there was a reason the Senate Executive Nominations Committee recommended an unfavorable report on the nominees earlier this week. “They weren’t convinced that these people were working on behalf of the public and the public good,” he said.
Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said there was no reason to vote down a majority of the board’s members when the senators will consider a bill later this session to repeal the board altogether. He called the unfavorable votes “an outright move to cripple this board that they can no longer operate.”
While Hershey was speaking, pages distributed an opinion from the Office of the Attorney General that made clear that nominees voted down during the session will be allowed to continue in their roles until the end of the legislative session or until new appointments are made.
The vote on the nominations was ultimately very close, with six Democrats voting in favor of the nominees. Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) said some of her proudest moments in life were advocating for passage of the federal Brady bill and assault weapons ban, but she voted in favor of the confirmation of the nominees.
“I think the performance of this Handgun Roster Board is troubling, to be sure,” Kagan said. “…But there’s sometimes the devil you know and the devil you don’t know. And if these people are qualified … let them finish out their term.”
Kagan noted that the last time nominees to the board were confirmed by floor votes was three years ago; since then, the board has been populated by a rotation of recess appointees.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he was voting in favor of the nominees, but would also vote later this session to repeal the board altogether, which might curtail the debate over nominees in future years.
“Before the end of this session, there’s going to be a bill, there’s going to be a hearing and there’s going to be a vote on the board,” Miller said.
A bill to repeal the board is being sponsored by Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), and is cosponsored by 18 senators including Miller and Kagan. Beidle expressed concern on the floor Friday morning that there is too much secrecy surrounding decisions of the board, and said if the board’s decision is appealed by Maryland State Police to the Office of Administrative Hearings, there is secrecy at that level as well.
Her legislation would abolish the board and send appeals of Maryland State Police decisions on handgun permits straight to the Office of Administrative Hearings. Beidle said she intends to continue asking questions about the board’s and Office of Administrative Hearings’ processes this session.
A spokesperson for Hogan on Friday did not commit to supporting the board’s continuation or repeal. “The legislature has the ability to propose changes to legislatively-created boards and commissions. If making changes to this board is a priority for the legislature, the governor will certainly consider any legislation that reaches his desk,” Spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver Churchill said.
After a reform bill last year, the Maryland State Police have been able to appeal the decisions of the board to the Office of Administrative Hearings for a full re-hearing. Of the board’s first 34 decisions since Oct. 1, the Maryland State Police appealed 22 times.