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Md. Gun Law Found Unconstitutional

BALTIMORE (AP) -- The Second Amendment right to bear arms is not limited to the home and Maryland's requirement that residents show a "good and substantial reason" to get a handgun permit is unconstitutional, according to a federal judge's opinion filed Monday.

The right to bear arms has historically been understood to allow for militia membership and hunting, which extends the right beyond the home, U.S. District Judge Benson Everett Legg wrote. States can channel the way residents exercise their rights, but because Maryland's goal was to minimize the number of firearms outside homes by limiting the privilege to those who could demonstrate "good reason," it had turned into a rationing system, he wrote.

"A citizen may not be required to offer a `good and substantial reason' why he should be permitted to exercise his rights," Legg wrote. "The right's existence is all the reason he needs."

Plaintiff Raymond Woollard obtained a handgun permit after fighting with an intruder in his Hampstead home in 2002, but was denied a renewal in 2009 because he could not show he had been subject to "threats occurring beyond his residence." Woollard appealed, but was rejected by the review board, which found he hadn't demonstrated a "good and substantial reason" to carry a handgun as a reasonable precaution. The suit filed on Woollard's behalf by the Second Amendment Foundation in 2010 claimed that Maryland didn't have a reason to deny the renewal and wrongly put the burden on Woollard to show why he still needed to carry a gun.

"People have the right to carry a gun for self-defense and don't have to prove that there's a special reason for them to seek the permit," said his attorney Alan Gura, who has challenged handgun bans in the District of Columbia and Chicago. "We're not against the idea of a permit process, but the licensing system has to acknowledge that there's a right to bear arms."

The lawsuit names the state police superintendent and members of the Handgun Permit Review Board.

"We disagree with this ruling," Assistant Attorney General Matthew Fader said in a statement. "In light of the very important implications of the ruling for public safety, the defendants will be appealing to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defendants will also be seeking a stay of the ruling pending appeal."

Jonathan Lowy, director of legal action project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which assists states and cities in facing gun law challenges, expects the 4th Circuit to overturn the ruling.

"The Supreme Court has recognized the right to have guns in homes, but there is no right in public places," Lowy said. "What Maryland does is reasonable. It allows law enforcement to make judgment based on substantial reasons why someone needs to carry a loaded gun in public. That's not rationing and certainly not unconstitutional."

But Gura disagrees, noting that many states require gun permits, but six states, including Maryland, issue permits on a discretionary basis. He'd like to see Maryland develop a licensing system that is "objective and straightforward."

This suit is one of several federal suits the foundation is bringing across the nation, but it is the first time the foundation has had success before reaching the appeals level, according to foundation Founder and Executive Vice President Alan M. Gottlieb.

"Momentum is moving in our direction," he said.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a western Maryland Republican who has introduced a bill to protect the right to obtain a firearm for self-defense or to protect one's home or family, applauded the ruling.

"As Judge Legg correctly ruled, the burden should be on the government to prove that an American is unfit to exercise this Constitutional right," he said.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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