In the last four months, the Department of Maryland State Police has appealed nearly two dozen decisions by the Handgun Permit Review Board, a panel that has attracted scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers for its tendency to issue handgun permits contrary to state police recommendations.
The appeals are effectively a doubling-down by the police agency, which first decides whether to grant permits to wear, carry or transport firearms in the state. Applicants unhappy with the decision of the Maryland State Police licensing division can then appeal to the Handgun Permit Review Board, a panel established in 1972.
In recent years, the board has handled hundreds of requests. Since December 2017, 622 appeals have been filed to the board. The vast majority of appeals, board members say, are permit holders seeking changes to the restrictions placed on their permits by the state police.
Of 269 cases heard since December 2017, the board has reversed the decision of the state police 77 times and modified restrictions 145 times. Since Oct. 1, the police have been able to appeal the decisions of the board to the Office of Administrative Hearings for a full rehearing. Of the board’s first 34 decisions since Oct. 1, the Maryland State Police appealed 22 times, according to the Office of Administration Hearings, state police and the attorney general’s office. Twenty-one of the cases are still under consideration; the other case was concluded, but the court’s decision was not clear Friday.
Snags over appointees
For a few years now, Democrats have expressed consternation over board members’ beliefs about gun rights, and the board’s rate of overturning state police decisions have caused delays in confirmation of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s appointees.
Three members of the board are up for confirmation this legislative session: Bryan Yukio Fischer, Carol O. Loveless and John H. Michel. They are the most recent interim appointees to have served on the board before Senate confirmation. Last legislative session, Hogan withdrew the names of three nominees after having appointed the members at the conclusion of the previous legislative session.
This year, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) has asked for delays in the Senate Executive Nominations Committee vote on Fischer, Loveless and Michel as he’s tried to find out more information about the board’s reversal rate and the nominees’ beliefs.
Ferguson sent a two-page letter to each board member with a series of questions about whether they believed in and applied Maryland’s statutory requirement of a “good and substantial reason” for a concealed carry permit.
“We take our oaths of office very seriously and have always acted within the law,” the board members wrote in a consolidated response. “Consequently, the Board as a whole strictly adheres to the ‘good and substantial’ requirement when deciding cases before it.”
Ferguson said he was “cautiously concerned” that the three board members sent a combined, eight-page letter in response to his questions.
“I was disturbed that three individual letters were sent and one response was received. Each individual hopefully has an independent perspective on each of the cases and by consolidating a single response, the appearance is that one individual wrote the response and the rest signed on,” Ferguson said.
He sent on to say that while the responses were thoughtful, he disagreed with some of the members’ interpretations of gun laws.
“But that’s not a reason to object to somebody. The governor has certainly the authority and discretion to appoint people who align with his philosophies, so I don’t begrudge that in any way, shape or form,” Ferguson said. “But I do have concerns about the independence of the individual members.”
Abolishing the board?
With doubts being raised about the appointees, questions have once again surfaced about whether the board should be abolished.
The Office of Administrative Hearings — established in 1990 to decide appeals of administrative agency decisions — has a cadre of 55 administrative law judges that handle hearings for aggrieved parties in other state agencies. Now that the state police can appeal Handgun Permit Review Board decisions to the court as well, the board “feels like a superfluous step,” Ferguson said.
A bill to abolish the board was considered last year, but was ultimately amended to maintain the board while attempting to move more of its functions into the public eye and give state police the greater ability to appeal.
No bill to abolish the panel has been introduced yet this year. The nominees will be up for discussion again at Monday’s meeting of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee.
“I think that unfortunately those nominees are victim to the angst that [committee] members have towards the board itself. I think that if they don’t like the board, put a bill in to abolish the board,” said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County), a member of the Executive Nominations Committee.
He and other Republicans have argued that the board plays an important role in distributing handgun permits.
“People that go for a concealed carry permit, they’re doing it for a reason; they’ve been threatened or they’re in a position where their life could be in jeopardy and they apply to the state police to have a handgun to protect themselves and their family,” Jennings said. “When the state police makes their decision, there should be a way to appeal it.”
What does Jennings think about a bill to repeal the board?
“I’d have to look at it. Right now, I support the board,” Jennings said.