Carroll County's gun law nullification fantasy

Nullification fever is spreading across the rural counties along the Mason-Dixon Line, with Cecil, Harford and Carroll counties passing resolutions in the last month declaring their view that Maryland's new gun control law is unconstitutional. Cecil's council kicked off the trend with a resolution stating its intent that no county resources be used to enforce the law. Harford took a more moderate tack, with its councilmen merely urging more study of the constitutionality of the law.

But Carroll County on Wednesday took matters to a new level — perhaps no surprise, given the commissioners' previous efforts to disprove global warming. Their resolution on the matter reaches heights of faux-populist outrage that are difficult to do justice to, touching on matters ranging from the establishment of local "reserve resources" units to assist the sheriff — what in an earlier time one might have referred to as a posse comitatus — to the United Nations arms control treaty. (The commissioners have decided that's null and void in Carroll County, too, notwithstanding the fact that it hasn't been ratified by the U.S. Senate.)

Behind all the quotes from the Founding Fathers about the need to defy unjust laws and the implication that the right to bear arms is granted by God, the resolution, and to a degree its predecessors in Cecil and Harford, represent a profound misunderstanding of Maryland gun laws before this act, the terms of the new law, and the state of Second Amendment jurisprudence.

The Carroll commissioners decree that the county government shall not expend any resources for the enforcement of any provisions they deem to violate the Constitution, including requirements to register "existing, lawfully owned firearms"; prohibitions, regulations or restrictions on the ownership of any non-fully automatic firearms; limits on ammunition magazine capacity; and requirements for background checks or registration beyond that required in current law.

For starters, the new law includes no requirement that existing guns be registered with the state. In fact, people who legally own handguns, assault weapons or any other kind of gun — and those who at least order them before the law goes into effect in October — will not be affected by this bill at all. Maryland has for 20 years prohibited machine pistols, which apparently was not an affront to the commissioners' Second Amendment sensibilities. Maryland already restricts the size of ammunition magazines — presently, the limit is 20 rounds, and once the new law goes into effect, it will be 10. And the new licensing regimen for handgun buyers differs from current law principally in the requirement that buyers provide their fingerprints as part of the application.

The Carroll commissioners proclaim the rights conveyed in the Second Amendment to be "inalienable and individual" and that the restrictions enacted by the state violate them. They offer as support for their conclusion a reference to two Supreme Court cases: United States v. Miller (1939) and District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). The reference to Miller is odd, in that its very significance is downplayed by Heller. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in the latter case, noted in that case that "Miller stands only for the proposition that the Second Amendment right, whatever its nature, extends only to certain types of weapons."

What Justice Scalia went on to say in Heller is that, although the Second Amendment conveys an individual right rather than a collective one, it is not without restriction or free from regulation. He listed "laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms" as among a variety of "presumptively lawful regulatory measures" the government could enact.

That the commissioners in Carroll County would willfully misread the law or thumb their noses at the state is buffoonish but ultimately not deeply consequential. The county government itself has little if any role in administering the law. What is more disturbing is that the commissioners also invited the sheriff not to enforce the law and the state's attorney not to prosecute violations of it. According to news reports, Sheriff Kenneth Tregoning and State's Attorney Jerry Barnes gave what amounted to a wink and a nod to the pro-gun crowd at the meeting. "You can trust me," Mr. Barnes said, according to the Carroll County Times. Mr. Tregoning called the law "unjust."

This law is about seeking to reduce the likelihood that Maryland will experience a mass shooting like the one in Newtown, Conn., and to prevent the straw purchases that are one of the principal means by which criminals get guns. The commissioners can ignore that in their zeal to play to gun rights absolutists, but we would hope that the county's chief law enforcement officials would recognize the law's value as a tool to keep the public safe.

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