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Md. Democrats want to drop Handgun Permit Review Board, give duties to administrative law judges

Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Democrat, talks about measures aimed at protecting Maryland residents from gun violence during a news conference with Democrats in Annapolis, Md., on Thursday. (Brian Witte/AP)

Maryland Democrats want to eliminate the state board that hears appeals from people who have been denied gun permits and put such decisions in the hands of administrative law judges, rather than gubernatorial appointees.

Democratic legislative leaders say the Handgun Permit Review Board has overturned a greater number of decisions since Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took office three years ago, spurring their effort to change the process.

A spokeswoman for Hogan called that claim misleading, however, noting that the overall number of appeal requests has jumped considerably, and the rate of reversals has actually gone down. Initial decisions on permits are made by Maryland State Police.

Under the legislation announced Thursday, people denied permits would "still have an opportunity to appeal it, we just won't have a politically appointed board with their own philosophies on guns overruling the state police," House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said.

According to state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services data provided by the governor's office, the gun review board took action on 106 appeals between 2006 and 2012. Of those, it overturned 38 state police decisions. Between 2015 and 2016, the board took action on 156 appeals, overturning state police 26 times.

The legislation to eliminate the board is the latest example of the mistrust between Democratic lawmakers and Hogan. It comes a day after the popular governor called for bipartisanship in his State of the State address.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Hogan in November, questioned whether the part-time panel is qualified to overturn state police decisions.

"When it comes to the safety and security of Marylanders, there should be no question as to why our State Police would have their opinion overturned on a concealed-carry handgun permit denial," said Madaleno, who is sponsoring the bill to drop the handgun board.

Democrats also accused Hogan of trying to avoid Senate scrutiny of his nominees to the review board.

On the first day of this year's legislative session, Hogan notified the state Senate he was withdrawing the names of three board members who were appointed after the 2017 session ended. On Thursday, the governor said the search for replacements is continuing.

If no replacements are named before lawmakers adjourn in April, Hogan could appoint new board members without Senate approval.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said this week that Hogan appeared to be attempting to skirt the traditional nomination process.

In addition to the legislation affecting the gun board, Democrats said they are also pushing a bill that would ban bump stocks, a device used to accelerate the firing of semiautomatic weapons, including in last year's Las Vegas mass shooting.

Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery), who is sponsoring the bill, said the measure is the next step in strengthening the state's automatic-weapons ban.

"I do not see this as a monumental change to gun laws in Maryland, but it is a simple statement that you cannot jerryrig around our assault-weapons ban using technology," Moon said.

Hogan said he is willing to consider banning bump stocks. Regarding the handgun review board, he said he wondered why the legislature would get rid of a panel it created.

"I don't think anyone in the history of our state has ever been killed with a bump stock," he said. "I'm not sure the people that either have or don't have their handguns approved by the Handgun Permit Review Board are the ones that are responsible for most of the killing in our state."

Hogan said lawmakers should consider approving one of his bills: a measure that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders who use a gun to commit a crime.