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Anne Arundel County gun litigation could have national effects

Part of the suicide prevention pamphlet from Anne Arundel County
Anne Arundel County
Part of the suicide prevention pamphlet from Anne Arundel County

After a yearlong legal battle, Anne Arundel County’s Health Department is finally enforcing a law passed in early 2022 that will require gun retailers in the area to insert government-provided pamphlets on suicide prevention and conflict resolution into ammunition and firearm packaging.

However, a new legal challenge may bring the issue to a higher court and set a precedent over how far warning labels can go and what communities can do to increase public gun safety.

In late March, a District Court of Maryland judge ruled in favor of an Anne Arundel County law requiring gun retailers to handout safety pamphlets with products.

The county Health Department sent out a letter to retailers on March 30 reminding them that they must continue to abide by the law and that the government can provide them with more materials if needed.

“The bill requires firearms retailers to display and distribute materials relating to gun safety, gun training, suicide prevention, mental health and conflict resolution,” acting health officer Tonii Gedin wrote. “The purpose of the bill is to reduce the risk of suicide.”

The challenge to the law came from Maryland Shall Issue, a gun rights group, who is representing four shop owners in the county.

Now, after the loss, the organization is appealing to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

If the court decides to take up the case, the ruling will make for an even higher profile precedent that may have national implications.

Anne Arundel County passed the law requiring the pamphlets three and a half years after five journalists were killed in a shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.

“That bill passed 7-0,” said County Executive Stuart Pittman. “That's quite a feat in in Anne Arundel County because we have a diverse political viewpoints to say the least on our county council, and they all came together in support of this bill.”

The county’s hands were tied pretty tight in terms of superseding state and federal gun regulations, but the county wanted to take some sort of proactive measure.

Maryland Shall Issue and the gun shop owners claim the pamphlets have a “chilling effect,” and the pamphlets could hurt business.

“There’s a first amendment right not to have your speech compelled in this manner,” said Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue.

However, according to the court documents, the evidence to show that chilling effect was sparse.

“Maryland Shall Issue only hypothesizes that its customer members’ speech would be chilled; it does not allege a specific existing or imminent example of such harm,” the district judge wrote. “It fails to present the affidavit or testimony of a single member whose speech will be chilled by the County’s ordinance.”

The plaintiffs testified that there were no instances of customers refusing to buy firearms because of the pamphlets. There were no instances of customers saying that would not be able to buy firearms or ammunition because of the literature either, the plaintiffs said.

The judge also interpreted the pamphlets as commercial speech, a type of speech that is held to less scrutiny than political free speech.

“Commercial speech has to be analyzed in a way that gives more room for things like consumer safety warnings,” said Eric Tirschwell is the executive director of Everytown Law, a group advancing gun safety and representing the county. “There are a lot of decisions across a range of products upholding government warnings, and safety information that manufacturers and distributors are required to include.”

Part of Maryland Shall Issue’s appeal questions if access to a handgun has a link to the danger of suicide or violence. There is a solid body of evidence that shows people who own guns have an elevated risk of suicide. However, the evidence that educational materials like pamphlets are helpful is still debatable.

Maryland Shall Issue says further rulings against them could lead the way to excessive warning labels on products. On the other hand, Everytown Law, which is representing the county says a ruling in their favor would empower jurisdictions to take public health education to important areas.

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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