Events 300 miles from Annapolis are drastically changing the focus of Gov. Martin O’Malley and legislators as they prepare for the 2013 General Assembly session, bringing gun control to the forefront when it had not been in the picture.
Days after saying he was looking forward to a session of “good vibes and warm feelings,” Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park and his Democratic colleagues are opening a grim debate about gun control, citing the shooting deaths of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., as an impetus to push for more stringent regulations.
“The political calculus has changed dramatically,” Raskin said at a news conference to announce a legislative package that would, among other developments, ban assault weapons. “Politicians used to be afraid of what would happen if they did act, whereas now politicians are afraid of what’s going to happen if they don’t act.”
O’Malley (D) said this week that he would “absolutely” sign a state ban on assault weapons if it’s passed by the General Assembly. The governor said he likely will introduce a bill of his own, but was still working on the details.
The discussion, he said, should focus on three interconnected issues: school safety, making sure guns aren’t sold to those with dangerous mental illnesses, and possibly banning assault weapons and high-volume magazine clips.
“It’s just hard to conclude that these guns should be in the hands of anyone who isn’t a soldier on a battlefield or a law-enforcement officer sent into a tactical situation,” he said.
Raskin, along with Sens. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, Bill Ferguson (D-Dist. 46) of Baltimore and Lisa A. Gladden (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore will introduce legislation to ban assault weapons, give Maryland State Police the authority to audit gun shops, ban magazine clips holding more than 10 rounds and add restrictions on concealed weapons permits.
Banning assault weapons would “reduce the slaughter,” Frosh said. “Would it stop the gun violence? No. But would it save some lives? Absolutely.”
A similar ban was introduced in the General Assembly in 2010, but failed to make it out of committee.
A federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Some U.S. lawmakers are making renewed calls to enact a new ban.
The weapon reportedly used in the Newtown massacre was a Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle — a model similar to the one used by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the duo behind the 2002 Beltway Sniper shootings that left 10 dead in the region.
That rifle can be purchased legally in Maryland, but is considered an “assault weapon” under state law and is regulated like a handgun.
“[An assault weapons ban] does nothing to solve the problems we’re talking about,” said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton. “You need to address the mental health problem.”
Regulated firearms can be purchased only after a seven-day waiting period, completion of a training course and a background check by the Maryland State Police.
Another part of the legislative package is a bill that would give state police the same authority to audit gun stores currently used by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Frosh noted that the ATF audits gun dealers only every four to six years. Through the proposed legislation, Maryland State Police could go after gun dealers who claim that they have lost guns or the paperwork for those firearms.
“We know that there are certain gun stores where guns leave their inventory and end up being used in crimes in disproportionate numbers,” Frosh said.
In the 2012 session, Frosh introduced a similar bill. The Senate passed the measure, but it died in a House of Delegates committee.
Another law the senators are working on would amend Maryland’s right-to-carry law, which currently requires that those with permits have a “good and substantial” reason, as determined by state police, for carrying a gun. A U.S. District Court struck down the law this year, saying that it was too restrictive. The state is currently appealing the court’s decision, Frosh said.
“If it’s upheld, anybody could go and get a permit from the state to carry a gun wherever they want,” Frosh said, noting that there is nothing on the books to replace the current law, which applies to concealed weapons. Private Maryland residents cannot openly carry firearms in public.
A bill being drafted would prohibit those convicted of violent offenses and those with documented mental health issues from carrying a gun. The bill also would restrict where permit-holders could carry handguns, including in churches and schools, and would require training.
Patrick Shomo, president of the nonprofit gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue, said his organization supports keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerously ill, and that recent mass shootings have been committed by people who “absolutely” should not have had access to firearms.
The danger, Shomo said, is that lawful gun owners shouldn’t be persecuted for exercising their constitutional rights.
“Inanimate objects don’t kill people,” Shomo said.
A state task force was convened earlier this year to study the level of access that people with a history of mental illness have to regulated firearms and determine whether state law sufficiently protected the public.
The task force is expected to deliver its final report Dec. 31.