Senate Panel Gives Nod to Handgun Permit Board Repeal

A Maryland Senate committee voted in favor of a bill to repeal the state’s Handgun Permit Review Board on Monday, but another committee will soon have a say as well.

The Senate Executive Nominations Committee voted 10-6 in support of an amended Senate Bill 1000 that would repeal the beleaguered board and send appeals of Maryland State Police concealed carry permit decisions straight to the Office of Administrative Hearings. The committee also voted to make the bill an emergency measure, which would take effect as soon as passed by both chambers and signed by the governor.

Three members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, who sit on both panels, abstained from Monday night’s vote. Judicial Proceedings Chair Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said his committee will hold a voting session on the bill soon, once the current amendments are updated.

Interest has shifted to the Handgun Permit Review Board in the past several years after Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s nominees attracted scrutiny and data showed that the panel was increasingly overturning Maryland State Police decisions on permits.

Advocates for the board, including a former board member who was escorted from a hearing earlier this month after becoming unruly, have noted that the majority of appeals filed to the board deal with restrictions on permits, such as the times or circumstances gunowners who were otherwise approved for a permit may wear, carry or transport their firearms. The restrictions imposed by state police can be vague or so limiting they carry little effect, and the penalty for carrying a gun outside of permit restrictions can result in a criminal conviction that would prohibit someone from getting a permit in the future.

Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), sponsor of this year’s bill, said those are issues that could be legislated in the future, but she knew of only one case where a person faced a charge for carrying outside of a restricted permit and that case involved other issues, including road rage and domestic violence.

She said moving the permit appeals to the Office of Administrative Hearings would take the shifting winds of politics out of the issue altogether, leaving the decision with trained administrative law judges. Beidle said Maryland State Police processed more than 5,000 new permits and 5,000 renewals last year, approving most of them. A small percentage, about 500 permits, are denied, giving those applicants the opportunity to appeal to the board.

Once at the board, 83 percent of the MSP decisions were overturned between December 2017 and November 2018, according to the board’s annual report. The majority of those decisions shift restricted permits to unrestricted. A smaller number deal with people who had been denied by the board. Since December 2017, the board reversed state police 77 times, modified the police decision 145 times and sustained the police recommendation 37 times.

“I really feel like our troopers are doing a great job,” Beidle said Monday night. “[The troopers] appear to be following all of the rules and procedures in Maryland, and I feel like it’s really being disrespectful to them.”

The Office of the Administrative Hearings started receiving appeals from the board in October, following previous legislative reforms of the concealed carry permitting process. Since Oct. 1, decisions of the board have been appealable to the Office of Administrative Hearings; Maryland State Police have sought review dozens of times.

“This bill is a procedural charge to a process that just got changed in October,” Zirkin said. “I hope that folks on both sides of this issue don’t trumpet this as some big change in the law.”

Zirkin said lawmakers are soon going to have to face the reality that changes are needed to Maryland’s gun laws, in light of a federal court decision that struck down an identical “good and substantial” standard for concealed carry permits in the District of Columbia. In fact, if permit cases are taken directly to the Office of Administrative Hearings and then to the Circuit Court — which is currently third in the process — the state’s case law could change more quickly.

Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) didn’t support the bill in committee, but did support the amendment making it emergency legislation. If the bill passes, perhaps the Office of Administrative Hearings could potentially work quickly through a current backlog, Reilly said.

At the end of November, there were 367 open appeals pending before the board.

Of the 55 judges at the Office of Administrative Hearings now, 40 have been trained to handle cases from the Handgun Permit Review Board, Beidle said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is a member of the Executive Nominations Committee but abstained from the vote, said he supports the bill because it would put the decisions in the hands of “a trained person in the law versus laypeople with their biases and prejudices.”

The bill still faces several procedural hurdles before moving forward. A crossfiled House bill didn’t move forward in that chamber and the Judicial Proceedings Committee will not move on the bill until after “crossover day,” sending the bill to House Rules if passed by the Senate chamber. To be passed as emergency legislation, the bill needs a three-fifths majority.

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