Maryland Senate labors over constitutionality of firearm wear and carry legislation

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The state Senate had a protracted debate Thursday over the practicality of bills to limit the places and circumstances in which gun owners can wear, carry and transport their weapons, and how they can store them.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in June effectively rendering Maryland’s concealed-carry policy unconstitutional, legislators have been working on bills to re-imagine the state’s gun policy.

The Senate has now given preliminary approval to a bill that would alter Maryland’s safe storage gun laws.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, sponsored Senate Bill 858 to restructure Maryland’s policy on keeping guns away from minors and from people who aren’t allowed to have firearms.

The bill is named after 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey of Southern Maryland. She was killed in 2018 at school by a 17-year-old with access to his father’s firearm, said her mother, Melissa Willey, at the bill’s hearing earlier this session.

The committee voted earlier this week to add a measure to the bill that would make it reckless endangerment, under the law, to leave or store a gun where its owner knows or reasonably should know a child or a person prohibited from possessing a firearm could get it. If convicted, the gun owner would be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison.

The provision wouldn’t apply in certain circumstances, such as if the minor used the gun in self-defense or to protect others from a trespasser. It also would not apply if the following conditions are met: the minor has a hunting license, the firearm is a shotgun or rifle and the child has permission from a legal guardian.

Additionally, the amendment specifies that unloaded guns also need to be stored safely. If a gun owner left a weapon where a minor could reasonably access it — regardless of whether it had ammunition in it — that would violate the law.

A conviction would prohibit the gun’s owner from owning a gun for five years. Any subsequent conviction or a first conviction in a case in which a minor uses the weapon to hurt themself or others would result in a permanent ban from ownership.

In response to protests from committee members, Smith offered an amendment Thursday on the Senate floor. It would allow people to keep unloaded guns and ammunition in their homes, as long as they were not stored in the same spot.

“You can’t have the ammunition and the firearm close and readily available — close together,” Smith said.

The amendment was adopted without objection, and the bill was given preliminary approval. The Senate is expected to give it final approval within the next few days.

Senators also ultimately gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 1, which seeks to restrict adults from wearing, carrying or transporting firearms in public or “sensitive” places.

Judicial Proceedings Committee Vice Chair Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat, drafted the bill also in response to the Supreme Court decision, which affected Maryland’s requirement that people show a good reason to get a license to wear a firearm out of sight.

During its initial hearing, the bill proved to be divisive among committee members — as well as controversial among some members of the public — for its restrictions.

As drafted, it would have prohibited people from wearing, carrying or transporting guns at places of public accommodation, restaurants, hotels, theaters, buses and other forms of transportation, recreation centers, government facilities, gas stations, stores, sidewalks, parking lots, offices, museums and amusement parks, among other locations.

The bill was amended in committee to narrow the places where a firearm may not be carried to certain “sensitive” places. Those include schools, camps or health care facilities, government and critical infrastructure facilities, public universities, polling places, any business that sells cannabis or alcohol for on-site consumption, stadiums, museums, performance venues and carnivals.

If passed and signed by the governor, the law wouldn’t apply to law enforcement officers, members of the armed forces who are on duty or traveling to and from duty, ROTC members participating in their programs, correctional officers, sheriffs or deputies. Off-duty police and retired law enforcement officials could carry guns if they have a valid wear and carry license. It wouldn’t apply on private property where an owner has authorized security guards to wear or carry guns.

The legislation received several amendments Waldsteicher classified as “friendly” on the floor. They include measures that mean someone wouldn’t be penalized for accidentally displaying concealed firearms if the wind shifted their clothing or their body moved, as long as the guns weren’t shown in a threatening manner. Another would make it clear that concealed firearms were allowed at polling places outside voting hours.

Republicans lobbed nine amendments at the bill that were rejected. One sought to clarify that an armed civilian responding to a clear and imminent threat, for purposes of protecting another person, would not violate the bill’s provisions.

Republican Sen. Johnny Mautz sponsored that amendment. He said that in his hometown of St. Michaels, in Talbot County, people may need to come to each other’s aid.

“If something goes down in our town and an officer can respond in five minutes, that’s greased lightening,” Mautz said. On the other hand, if something happens and an officer can’t get there, “it’s over,” he said.

Waldstreicher asked senators to reject the amendment because it “will accidentally, but seriously, threaten public safety.” He also said “a person has a right to go to the defense of another person” under Maryland’s current law.

The amendment failed 19-27, and the bill ultimately received preliminary approval.

The Senate took up an another measure Thursday poised to address another 2022 Supreme Court decision, one that overturned 50 years of precedent established under the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Senate Bill 798, sponsored by Democratic Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, would allow Marylanders to vote during the 2024 election to enshrine access to abortion in the state constitution. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, is ushering her bill on this through the House chamber.

The bill was brought before the legislature during the 2022 session, passing the House but stalling in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey, who represents the upper Eastern Shore, called the legislation “a symbolic gesture,” and said the legislature has yet to “see the need or the reason to put this in the Maryland constitution.”

“So it starts to bring the question of, ‘Which constitutions are important?’ in this chamber,” he said.

Hershey noted the U.S. Constitution ensures the right to bear arms, which he alleged the legislature is attempting to “circumvent” under Waldstreicher’s legislation.

Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready of Carroll County asked if abortion was a “fundamental right” — even under Roe.

Sen. Dawn Gile, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, disagreed with that line of argument, saying it falls under the 14th Amendment, which protects due process and the right of privacy.

“In Maryland, we will not be intimidated. We will not be deterred,” she said.

The debate on Senate Bill 798 is expected to resume Friday.

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