An intrepid gun owner from the Garden State asks:
Can you explain how rulings, such as Woollard v. Sheridan, impact other states? Lets say for arguments sake that the case is elevated to the supreme court and it is ruled that ‘may issue’ is unconstitutional and that ‘shall issue’ is the only lawful and appropriate route. What does that mean for me in NJ?
At RF’s request, I’ll be happy to take a stab at answering these questions, but I first have to stress that this is only my legal analysis, and not any kind of legal advice. If you’ve got your own real case going on or if you plan to challenge some state’s gun laws, you’ll need to talk to a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction. Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to pay them too . . .
Woollard v. Sheridan is a federal court case, decided about three months ago in the district of Maryland. Maryland prohibits carrying a handgun in any manner, open or concealed, without a handgun carry permit. Maryland is also a ‘may issue’ handgun permit state, where nobody gets the permit unless they
bribe somebody or have friends in City Hall demonstrate “good and substantial reason to wear, carry, or transport a handgun, such as a finding that the permit is necessary as a reasonable precaution against apprehended danger.”
Plaintiff Woollard got his handgun carry permit after his son-in-law Kris Abbot, high on drugs, broke into Woollard’s remote house and assaulted him. The perp wrestled away Woolard’s shotgun, but Woollard’s son had his own gun and subdued Abbott. It took police two and a half hours to respond. It’s a good thing seconds count, because if minutes counted the po-po wouldn’t have been there until the following Friday. But I digress.
Woollard tried to renew his permit when it expired, but it was rejected because he failed to document any recent threats or violence from Abbott.
What Does Woollard Say?
I don’t have time to lay out a comprehensive constitutional analysis of Judge Benson Legg’s full opinion (and you probably don’t have the No-Doz to sit and read it) but the short of it is that Maryland’s ‘good and substantial cause’ requirement was found to infringe too far on the right to keep and bear arms, as set forth in SCOTUS’ recent Heller and McDonald decisions.
Although Woollard stuck down Maryland’s ‘good and substantial cause’ requirement for carrying a handgun outside the home, it specifically didn’t address whether such a requirement would be allowed for a concealed weapon permit. If ‘good and substantial cause’ can be required for issuance of a CCW permit, this decision seems to assume that open carry must be the unrestricted Plan B for security-conscious citizens. In many states, however, open carry is tightly restricted or prohibited outright.
How Will Woollard Affect Other States?
Woollard v. Sheridan was decided in United States District Court, and the decisions of U.S. federal trial courts are limited in their precedential impact. Trial court opinions only serve as ‘binding authority’ (i.e., other judges are expected to follow them, under the rule of stare decisis) within the same Federal court district, which in this case is only the state of Maryland. (Only 1.83 miles across, in one spot.)
Federal trial court decisions are still influential as ‘persuasive authority’ outside their own districts, however, since other courts often borrow their reasoning and analysis when facing similar questions of law. If New Jersey or Delaware had a similar ‘may issue’ licensing scheme for handgun carry permits, their respective federal courts would be reasonably likely to adopt the same reasoning that Judge Legg set forth. Or then again, maybe not. Like Fleetwood Mac, they can go their own way in the absence of binding authority.
In the end, the Woollard decision may end up having no value to anyone, including Mr. Woollard, because it’s headed for the 4th Circuit Court Of Appeals. If the 4th Cuircuit affirms the decision it becomes ‘binding precedent’ for all of the 4th Circuit, which stretches from Maryland and West Virginia down to South Carolina. At this point it would only be ‘binding precedent’ for those states in the 4th Circuit, unless the U.S. Supreme Court takes it up and affirms it as the law of the land. And if the 4th Circuit overturns it, it’s dead unless and until SCOTUS reinstates it.
New Jersey is in the 3rd Circuit, so our readers there won’t get any binding precedent out of Woollard unless it’s affirmed by Johnny Roberts And The Supremes, or unless a similar opinion is issued by New Jersey federal district court or the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. All of these outcomes are several years away, and far from guaranteed.
And even if Woollard becomes the law of the land under an expansive SCOTUS opinion some day (as our reader’s question optimistically presumes) this doesn’t magically erase all the ridiculous ‘may issue’ restrictions on the books in states beyond Maryland. Each one of them must be either repealed by that state legislature or declared unconstitutional by a court of competent jurisdiction in its own lawsuit. As we’re seeing in Chicago and the District of Columbia, this can take years and years so don’t hold your breath.