If you’re looking for a good vantage point from which to watch a number of the most controversial bills that will be considered by the General Assembly this session, you might consider camping out in the hearing room of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Gun control. Repeal of the death penalty. Speed cameras. Pit bulls. A court decision on the use of DNA evidence. And, as a bonus, the committee chair, Sen. Brian Frosh, may well become Maryland’s next attorney general.
Many of the bill hearings will draw large crowds with strong opinions and equally strong emotions. We’re likely to see the best and the worst of the democratic process, as advocates make their cases for and against each of these measures.
Guns are very much in the news again in the aftermath of the horrendous shooting in Newtown, Conn. President Barack Obama has expressed support for strong gun control measures and began this week to spell out the details of his position.
The National Rifle Association has responded with its usual no-compromise opposition and with an even more harebrained scheme than usual, that armed guards be placed in every school.
Gov. Martin O’Malley, reacting to both public opinion in Maryland and the strong position taken by another potential 2016 presidential contender, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, is giving his full support to legislative efforts on gun control this session. And for a number of the most far-reaching efforts to have any chance in the General Assembly, gubernatorial leadership will be essential. There will be several bills on guns for the Judicial Proceedings Committee to consider.
Frosh is already on record as being in favor of tighter regulations and will have the task of finding the balance that will move the bills out of committee in the face of highly vocal opposition.The two measures that have received the most attention are a proposed ban on assault weapons and limits on high-capacity magazines.
In a sane world, both of these proposals would pass with overwhelming support. Neither assault weapons nor large ammunition clips has anything to do with hunting, and the horrible consequences of having both easily available have been demonstrated over and over again.
In terms of stemming the epidemic of gun violence, a couple of other bills may be even more important. One would require more thorough and accurate record-keeping by gun stores and would give the police the authority to check those records. Now, straw-man sales and evasion of the current laws are major contributors to guns falling into the wrong hands.
Borrowing from the experience of some other states, the legislature also will consider a measure to require licensing of gun owners –– with records kept and renewal processes required –– which could be a significant step.
In response to these efforts, the NRA and its supporters will misrepresent the Second Amendment and the relevant Supreme Court cases and will attempt to intimidate legislators. Citizens who are appalled by this country’s unwillingness to deal with a crisis in which more people in the United States are killed by handguns than in the rest of the democratic world put together need to give those legislators support and encouragement. A perfect solution will not come out of this General Assembly session, but, for the first time in a long while, there is the possibility of measurable progress.
The other really high visibility issue is whether Maryland will repeal the death penalty. There is a fascinating political dynamic at work this year. Senate President Mike Miller, a supporter of the death penalty, has promised that if Gov. O’Malley –– who has identified repeal as one of his top legislative priorities –– can round up 24 votes in support of repeal in the Senate, Miller will guarantee a floor vote on the measure.
Given that the likely split in the Judicial Proceedings Committee is 6-5 against repeal, the same margin that it has been for a number of years, Miller’s offer may require some unusual legislative maneuvering. The last time that the normal committee process was bypassed, there was a confusing round of floor amendments that resulted in the standard of proof for applying the death penalty being raised without actually abolishing it. Miller has not yet indicated how he would bring about a floor vote, but, given his mastery of the Senate over almost three decades, no one doubts that he can make good on the promise.
Both gun laws and repeal of the death penalty, if passed by the Maryland Senate, would require action by the House of Delegates, with a first stop at the House Judiciary Committee. The outcomes are not guaranteed at any of these steps, but, with no gaming issues likely to come before the legislature, these measures will provide much of this year’s drama.
Pit bulls, the subject of a court decision, and speed cameras, the subject of a lot of criticism, also will get their days in the sun (although probably not much in The Sun).
Plan to get there early if you want a good seat. With the rising price of movies, these hearings may be the best value entertainment around.
Laslo Boyd does consulting in higher education, public policy and politics. His email address is email@example.com.