Rule of Law

Anne Arundel County gun safety literature law gains support amid appeal from Maryland Shall Issue nonprofit

Gun rights nonprofit Maryland Shall Issue appealed a federal judge’s decision to uphold an Anne Arundel County law requiring gun sellers to hand out pamphlets on suicide prevention and safe gun storage. Since then more than 20 parties have filed amicus briefs defending the county’s bill.

The legislation passed the County Council unanimously  in January 2022. Maryland Shall Issue sued the county in April of that year, claiming the law violated the First Amendment rights of gun sellers.

In March, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher sided with the county on the grounds that all the information in the pamphlets is unbiased and indisputably accurate. The nonprofit will now try to convince the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that the bill is unconstitutional, despite Gallagher’s ruling.

“We have, in my view at least, a compelling Supreme Court precedent which is binding on all judges,” said Maryland Shall Issue President Mark Pennak, the attorney representing four local gun sellers in this case: Cindy’s Hot Shots in Glen Burnie, Pasadena Arms and Field Traders in Pasadena, and Worth-A-Shot in Millersville.

“We think the precedent is overwhelmingly in our favor,” Pennak said.

The precedent Pennak is referring to is the 2018 case National Institute of Family & Life Advocates vs. Becerra which involved religiously-affiliated pregnancy health centers. The centers challenged a California law requiring them to notify those they serve about local abortion options. The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court said, ‘No you can’t make people do that. You can’t make them into conduits, commandeer their efforts just because you think it’s a good policy,’” Pennak said. “That’s exactly the same situation we have here.”

If the county were distributing the suicide prevention and gun safety pamphlets using their own staff or on their own property, the nonprofit wouldn’t have a case, Pennak said. If the county hired representatives to stand on the street in front of gun stores handing these leaflets out, that would be its prerogative, but this bill forces the vendors to be “government mouthpieces” he argued.

In her March ruling, Gallagher wrote that disclaimers on commercial products similar to guns are fairly standard and perfectly legal. Small toys have choking hazards and some prescriptions come with information about side effects.

The county is hoping its same line of argument that persuaded Gallagher the law was constitutional will also persuade the Court of Appeals, said Deputy County Attorney Hamilton Tyler in a statement.

Since the appeal was filed in April, more than 20 parties have submitted amicus briefs in support of the county, including The Constitutional Accountability Center, a Washington think tank, Maryland Attorney General’s Office and Gun Owners for Safety, a gun safety group started by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Such briefs are submitted by a person or group in hopes of influencing the court’s decision.

“The devastating toll of suicide, fueled by impulsive decisions born in moments of profound despair, is compounded by the convenience and accessibility of firearms,” said Attorney General Anthony Brown in a July statement. “Education, awareness, and community support play critical roles in recognizing the warning signs and equipping individuals who are struggling with the support and interventions needed to prevent such tragedies.”

In July, The American Medical Association, MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society, The American Academy of Pediatrics, Maryland Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics, The Maryland Psychiatric Society, and Washington Psychiatric Society filed a joint brief arguing the bill should be upheld.

“If someone is going to buy a gun, we should tell them that they should take precautions to prevent a really horrible thing from happening,” said MedChi CEO Gene Ransom in an interview. “We warn people about all kinds of things when they purchase items. Why wouldn’t we want to warn people about the most dangerous items you can buy in a store?”

County Council member Lisa Rodvien, an Annapolis Democrat, who sponsored the bill last year said she doesn’t see a legitimate way in which her bill infringes on anyone’s rights.

“I feel like we have very strong arguments,” Rodvien said. “I’m just disappointed that people that are supposedly gun owners and supposedly support responsible gun ownership can’t get behind something that might prevent firearm suicide and unsafe storage, might prevent death of children. It’s beyond the pale.”

Pennak said his organization’s involvement in this case doesn’t mean Maryland Shall Issue is not empathetic to issues of suicide and or unsafe storage. For him it’s about protecting the rights of the sellers and how this could affect their business.

This is one of about a dozen cases Pennak has been involved in on behalf of Maryland Shall Issue, he said. He became the all-volunteer organization’s president after retiring from 33 years with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016. Maryland Shall Issue has become more active in litigation since Pennak joined the Maryland Bar in 2019 which allowed him to sue directly on behalf of the organization rather than having to hire someone else.

In contrast, county officials wonder what can be achieved if even something as seemingly minor as a pamphlet requirement can’t be passed into law without getting entangled in federal court.

“This is such a simple step and if we can’t do something as simple as that, how are we going to solve the bigger crisis we have in regards to gun violence in America?” Ransom said.

“I hit rock bottom on the tolerance for this sort of absolute view of gun rights a long, long time ago and I’m wondering if there is a bottom, if there is a bottom for some of the absolutists,” Rodvien added.