Last Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reinstated an NRA-supported challenge to Maryland’s convoluted handgun licensing scheme. An earlier trial court decision had dismissed the case on technical grounds, claiming the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit. Three judges of the Fourth Circuit overruled that erroneous decision, finding that a gun store plaintiff has standing to raise a Second Amendment challenge on behalf of its customers. The case is Maryland Shall Issue v. Hogan.
The case arose from a law enacted in 2013 that requires those seeking to obtain a handgun in Maryland to first obtain a license, a process that involves potentially hundreds of dollars in fees, various sorts of red tape, mandatory training, a waiting period of up to 30 days, and a background check. This license entitles the holder to receive a handgun from a licensed dealer in a sale, rental, or other transfer … albeit after repeating a background check and filling out additional paperwork at the dealer’s shop. A violation of the handgun licensing requirements could result in up to 5 years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, and lifetime loss of Second Amendment rights. The plaintiffs in the case – which include individual persons, an advocacy group, and a gun shop – challenged the duplicative and burdensome licensing requirement as contrary to the Second Amendment, among other legal deficiencies.
In terms of standing, the individual plaintiffs in the case argued that, despite being law-abiding citizens, they were unable to fulfill the many requirements necessary to receive a handgun license and were effectively prevented by the requirement from exercising their rights. The advocacy group argued the requirement caused it institutional harm by suppressing its members’ exercise of their Second Amendment rights and forcing it to expend resources on litigating the law’s unconstitutional requirements. Finally, the gun store claimed that the handgun licensing requirement effectively prohibited otherwise eligible and willing customers from obtaining handguns and therefore affected the store’s bottom line by shrinking its potential customer base.
With respect to the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment claims, the Fourth Circuit determined the gun shop had standing to raise economic injuries resulting from the handgun licensing requirement. The court specifically cited assertions by the gun shop that it regularly turns away would-be customers who do not have a handgun license and that a four-year comparison of its handgun sales before and after the law’s enactment showed a subsequent 20% decrease. The store’s gross receipts from handgun sales, moreover, had also decreased since the law took effect.
But the Fourth Circuit went further, also holding that the gun shop could raise third-party Second Amendment claims on behalf of its customers. In doing so, the Fourth Circuit cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent that held “vendors and those in like positions have been uniformly permitted to resist efforts at restricting their operations by acting as advocates of the rights of third parties who seek access to their market or function.” It also held that this rule applies whether or not those third parties would have the ability to bring those claims themselves. “The district court erred in ignoring this long line of precedent,” the Fourth Circuit chided.
Additionally, the appellant court noted that “because standing for one party on a given claim is sufficient to allow a case to proceed in its entirety on that issue, we need not reach the question of whether the Individual Plaintiffs and [the advocacy group] have standing to bring their Second Amendment claims.”
While the Fourth’s Circuit’s decision serves as a victory to the NRA and others opposed to Maryland’s attempt to use licensing to suppress handgun ownership, it also illustrates the long, labor- and resource-intensive process of vindicating constitutional rights in court. The case will now return to the trial court for further proceedings on the merits. No doubt the decisions that are rendered in those proceedings will merely provoke more issues for the appellate court to resolve.
And so it goes in the never-ending effort to hold accountable those officials who would use any gimmick or artifice to place yet more obstacles in the path of law-abiding citizens seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.