The US Supreme Court on Monday turned down the appeal of a Maryland man who said the state’s restrictive gun-permit law violated his constitutional right to carry a firearm in public for self defense.
The case, Williams v. Maryland, was being closely followed because it might have set the stage for another potential landmark Second Amendment decision by the high court.
The justices did not explain why they rejected the appeal, but the action does not end the possibility of a gun-rights case reaching the court this term. The Supreme Court is awaiting briefs in at least one other gun case, and several other Second Amendment cases are working their way to the Supreme Court.
In 2008, the justices ruled that Americans have a right to possess arms in the home for self defense – a ruling that prevents government from enacting overly restrictive gun-control regulations. In 2010, the court announced that Second Amendment rights apply not only in federal jurisdictions but throughout the country in state and local jurisdictions as well.
The Williams case asked the court to extend its analysis one step further. Lawyers for Williams urged the justices to use the case to clarify whether the Second Amendment’s right to “keep and bear arms” free from overly restrictive regulations applies beyond the home to carrying weapons in public for personal self defense.
The issue is significant because a high court decision would erect a framework for future gun regulations at the national, state, and local level, which could lead to new laws as well as challenges to existing ones.
“This case presents perhaps the most critical issue of all: are the words ‘bear arms’ devoid of meaning, thereby limiting the Second Amendment to the right to ‘keep arms’ within the four walls of one’s dwelling?” the Williams brief asked.
“If so, it is an extraordinarily constricted constitutional right, that bears little resemblance to the robust right clearly envisioned by the Framers and exercised throughout American history.”
Maryland responded that its tough gun-permit requirements do not violate the Constitution.
“The Second Amendment does not bar a state from requiring residents to obtain a permit before carrying handguns outside the home,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Brian Kleinbord. “Not surprisingly, no lower court has held to the contrary.”
The dispute stemmed from the October 2007 arrest of Charles Williams for possessing a firearm outside his home without having first obtained a permit from the state.
Mr. Williams was arrested after a police officer noticed him rummaging through a backpack near a bus stop. As the officer drove nearby he saw Williams conceal an object in a bush. The officer stopped and asked Williams what he placed in the bush.
“My gun,” Williams responded.
Williams was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to serve a year in prison.
On appeal, he argued he was not engaged in any unlawful activity with the gun, that he was merely transporting it from his girlfriend’s house to his own home. He said the Second Amendment protects his right to carry a gun for self defense and that the Maryland restrictions were unconstitutional.
He lost the appeal. Maryland’s highest court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s gun permitting law, noting that the Supreme Court had established a Second Amendment right limited to personal possession of firearms in the home – not outside the home in public.
The Maryland court said portions of the Supreme Court’s decision suggesting a broader Second Amendment right were not binding on other courts.
“If the Supreme Court … meant its holding to extend beyond home possession, it will need to say so more plainly,” the Maryland court said.
Williams argued that the Supreme Court has established a general right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, including carrying a gun for self-defense in public places.
He said Maryland’s restrictive regulatory system grants permits only to certain individuals like police officers and security guards whose jobs require guns. Permits are also issued to those who can demonstrate they are under an active threat of violence.
Williams said the state’s scheme is too restrictive. “The Maryland court holds that there is no Second Amendment right to ‘bear arms’ (that is, to wear or carry arms for purposes of confrontation or self defense). Any state-granted, discretionary privilege to carry a handgun in Maryland is restricted to a tiny minority of favored individuals, and by law is not available to the ordinary citizens who make up ‘the people,’ “ wrote Williams lawyer Stephen Holbrook in the brief.
Maryland countered that the Supreme Court made clear in its 2008 decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, that its holding would not undercut the enforcement of reasonable restrictions on guns. Maryland’s permit requirements were reasonable restrictions, the state argued.
The Maryland court dismissed arguments that the permit process was too restrictive by citing statistics that nearly 93 percent of applications for handgun permits were granted from 2006 to 2009.
Williams countered that statistics show that the vast majority of those permits were issued to police officers, security guards and other favored occupations. In contrast, Williams’s lawyers said, only 1.7 percent of permits were issued for personal protection.
The case was Williams v. Maryland (10-1207).