John H. Josselyn

John H. Josselyn is legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / March 8, 2012)

John Josselyn stood at a gun range in Baltimore County on the warmest day of last week, ready for target practice with his .22-caliber pistol, and recalled how the simple threat of a gun once saved him from three thugs. The gun-rights advocate called it "tantamount to the rattle of a rattlesnake."

But Matthew Fenton's memories of firearms give him no sense of security. He was shot in the head three decades ago during a robbery that led him to found an anti-gun lobbying group. There's still a half-dollar sized piece of skull missing today above his left eye, where the bullet struck him that night.

Each man also has a different take on a federal judge's ruling last week, striking down Maryland's handgun-carry regulation as unconstitutionally restrictive. The opinion alternately caused consternation or celebration among residents, depending on which side of the debate they stand.

Gun advocates applauded the decision and called it overdue, saying that it would bring Maryland policies in line with most of the country's and have a deterrent effect on crime — if the ruling withstands a promised appeal. Meanwhile, some gun opponents predicted a boost in criminal activity and shootouts in the streets, because the court order would make it markedly easier to legally carry a gun.

Each side points to stacks of research backing its position and debunking the other's, but the credibility of much of that literature is in question, according to academics who have studied the impact of gun-carry laws on crime.

The truth, they say, lies somewhere in the middle.

There could be an uptick in aggravated assaults, according to studies from Yale and Stanford law schools, or even a slight decrease in murders, according to an economist who also is a commentator for Fox News. But more likely than not, most said, there will be no discernible change at all.

"It doesn't make any difference," said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Researchers generally "don't find any effect one way or the other. You don't get a Wild West with people shooting each other over fender-benders on the highway, nor the deterrent effect that" gun advocates foretell.

It's a lackluster message that's rarely detected in the public din over guns, where showier passions and politics often drive the debate.

The debate is also colored by perception. Many consider firearms an integral part of the country's early survival — though that image may be portrayed more often by Hollywood than the history books — and loudly defend their right to bear arms. Others, particularly some crime victims, embrace a more modern characterization of guns in which they're demonized as the preferred weapons of urban gangsters, rapists and robbers.

At stake, each side says, are the issues of life and liberty that make up the country's core values. It's the kind of emotional thinking, some scientists said, that makes it tough for academic data to sway the discussion.

"People on both sides don't care what the evidence is," Kleck said. "It doesn't have anything to do with why they arrived at their position, and they're not going to be talked out of it."

Until last week, Maryland was one of about 10 "may issue" states left in the U.S. when it comes to the distribution of gun-carry permits. That means it was up to the discretion of local authorities to determine whether an applicant had a "good and substantial reason" to receive a license — chiefly based on whether the person worked with valuables or could show his or her life was in some kind of danger based on business or personal experience.

If that good and substantial reason was established, under the law the Maryland State Police could issue permit after ruling out other disqualifiers, such as felony convictions, mental illness, a history of violence or drug and alcohol abuse.

The remaining 40 or so states — either on the law books or in practice — are "shall issue" states, meaning they give applicants a gun-carry permit once basic safety criteria are met. No further justification is required.

But on Monday, an opinion by Baltimore-based U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg seemed to seriously threaten Maryland's "may issue" status. Legg found that the Second Amendment right to bear arms extends outside the home and that the "good and substantial reason" requirement for a carry permit in Maryland unconstitutionally limits that entitlement.

It's unclear how or when his ruling will be implemented, however. The Maryland attorney general's office has asked for a clarification and also requested that its enforcement be delayed while the agency appeals the decision. And the Maryland State Police say they're sticking to the old way of issuing permits until told otherwise.

But the reaction to the ruling was clear and swift, with lawyers and legislators on each side fighting to defend or overturn the decision.

Some Republican state legislators quickly called for an immediate realization of the judge's order, or for the passage of a bill before the House of Delegates that would change the law to match it, while some Democrats tried to figure out how to defer both proposals. Gun-rights advocates said they felt "vindicated," while anti-gun groups were deflated.