A federal appeals court has ordered a new hearing for a lawsuit filed against a Maryland county by gun groups who said the county illegally blocked their gun show at the county fairgrounds.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis was wrong to strike down the county law without first determining if the gun groups had legal standing to sue.

In a three-page opinion, it ordered the case back to Garbis with instructions that he rule on the plaintiffs' standing and then decide if the case should be moved out of the federal courts and into the Maryland Court of Appeals.

"This is like the beginning of the second skirmish in the war," said Judson Paul Garrett Jr., an attorney for the county. "We have argued all along that [the plaintiffs] do not have standing."

An attorney for the gun groups disagreed.

"Of course, they can sue, they are the only ones who could," said Jonathan P. Kagan, the plaintiffs' attorney.

The case began in the spring of 2001 when Frank Krasner, owner of Silverado Promotions, applied to host his biannual gun show at the Montgomery County (Md.) Agricultural Center. The center turned him down, saying that under a new county law, it would lose county money if it approved the show.

The law, passed by the county council in May 2001, denies county support to any organization that "allows the display and sale of guns" at one of its facilities.

Krasner sued, saying the agriculture center is the only suitable site in the county for his show. He was joined in the suit by two regular exhibitors at his shows, Valley Gun and Police Supply and the Montgomery Citizens for a Safer Maryland, a gun-rights organization.

Garbis sided with the plaintiffs. He noted that the agriculture center is in the town of Gaithersburg, which specifically allows the sale of firearms, and said the county cannot impose a ban on gun sales in the city.

But county attorneys argued that only the agriculture center was affected by the threat of lost funds, and only it had a right to sue — not the gun groups.

"[The plaintiffs'] existence does not depend on county grants," Garrett said.

He said the county's aim with the law was to regulate grants to facilities like the fairgrounds, not to regulate firearms sales.

"They can do [sell guns] all they want; we're not prohibiting them," Garrett said.

But Kagan said the exhibitors were harmed.

"They sell guns and booths for the gun show. They will be affected, not the fairgrounds," Kagan said.

Garbis also said in his October 2001 ruling that the plaintiffs had raised "serious questions" about the effect of the law on their First Amendment right to free speech. But he did not address those questions, since he had already ruled the law unenforceable in Gaithersburg.

Robert Culver said it was because of the free-speech issue that his group, Montgomery Citizens for a Safer Maryland, joined the suit. The group uses the gun shows to register voters and pass out pro-gun rights information.

"If we lose that venue of like-minded people we would be severely disabled and infringed," Culver said. "We want to go where the picking is good. We could stand on the corner and shout into the wind, but that wouldn't do much."

While the case has been working its way through the courts, the gun shows have continued: Garbis' ruling came before the law was set to take effect, in December 2001. Krasner said he has not yet missed one of his twice-yearly shows at the fairgrounds.

"Why are they wasting money on this?" Krasner asked of the continuing court fight. "How much money is the county spending on this?"