While police chiefs and prosecutors urged state legislators to bring “common sense solutions” to improve background checks and require licenses for handguns to deter straw purchases, some lawmakers called such moves violations of the Second Amendment and vowed to oppose them.
Nearly 40 bills have been introduced this legislative session — from Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to require a license for people to buy handguns to a proposal to allow county school boards to decide whether to arm school personnel.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said he thinks O’Malley’s proposal is a good idea, but he does not believe schools should arm teachers because police officers go through extensive training in when to shoot or avoid shooting. More schools should have resource officers such as those in about half of Montgomery County’s high schools and middle schools, but just adding guns to schools will make the students less safe, he said.
“I’m hopeful common sense can prevail at some point,” Manger said.
Manger, who attended Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s forum on gun violence Monday in Baltimore, said O’Malley’s proposal includes many good ideas and that it’s a good starting point for conversations that he hoped would lead to compromises on the gun issue.
O’Malley (D) pitched his sweeping gun-control proposal to a Senate panel Wednesday, while hundreds of gun-rights supporters swarmed the Senate Office Building to voice their opposition.
“We are not trying to ban handguns; this law protects legal gun ownership,” O’Malley told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It is designed to stop criminals from buying guns.”
O’Malley’s proposed bill includes a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines as well as stricter licensing requirements for handgun purchases, such as fingerprinting and more extensive safety-training.
“This is not about ideology, this is about public safety. This is about doing reasonable things that work to save lives,” O’Malley said.
But committee members, including Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown and Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon, challenged the administration on what they saw as the bill’s potential to violate Second Amendment rights.
Jacobs argued that while the First Amendment doesn’t allow a person to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, “we don’t prevent people from going to the movie in the off chance they might yell ‘fire.’ What we do is we arrest people who abuse the First Amendment after they abuse it.”
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who testified with the governor, replied that the licensing provisions were crucial to preventing straw purchases — when a person with a clean record buys a gun for someone who can’t.
“Loved ones will go into a gun dealer and buy a weapon for someone who is a prohibited person,” Shellenberger said.
Gansler issued an opinion last week that O’Malley’s bill was constitutional, citing the 2008 Supreme Court decision in Heller v. District of Columbia. The court ruled that although people had the right to own firearms in their home, the right was not unlimited.
Wednesday’s hearing lasted more than eight hours and drew hundreds of prospective witnesses — as many as 3,000, by some estimates. The line to testify stretched from the second-floor committee room down to the front door of the Senate building.
By mid-afternoon, as many as a thousand potential witnesses were being turned away at the door because the building could not house the crowd.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton praised the committee’s handling of the hearing Thursday morning, but said the inability to accommodate everyone who wanted to testify was a “structural failure.”
“Turning away interested citizens in such a manner further fuels cynicism about our legislative process. Next time, they might not come back,” Pipkin said in a statement.
Pipkin said he will offer possible changes to the Senate rules to accommodate large crowds in the future.
Opponents of the governor’s plan also testified to its potential negative economic impact.
Theodore Wojcik, a gunsmith and owner of the Patriot Enterprises in Easton, said the bill likely would put him out of business by outlawing the guns he sells and customizes.
The Beretta U.S.A. Corp., which is based in Accokeek and employs about 400 people, is now facing a ban on its products at a time when it is being courted by other state governments to move their facilities from Maryland, said Jeff Reh, who sits on the company’s board of directors.
“We don’t want to do this,” Reh said. “But obviously this legislation has caused a serious level of concern within our company.”
Provisions in the governor’s bill barring the sale and transport of restricted weapons, which Beretta still could legally sell in other states, also could force the company to move, depending on how the proposed law was interpreted, Reh said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach has said the governor’s proposal should “absolutely” be broken up into separate pieces so that the measures with broad support would pass.
Miller anticipates vigorous debate on several facets of the bill, particularly over the definition of “assault weapon” and the licensing requirements.
“Why are you fingerprinting someone who hasn’t committed a crime?” Miller said. “These are issues that are going to come up.
Members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee said Thursday it was too early to predict how the panel might alter the bill, but Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said there was a compelling case for a ban on assault weapons, a limit on magazine clip size and licensing, which have reduced gun crime elsewhere.
“It’s not like you can take a pill and we’re going to be better,” Frosh said. “But we do know reasonable steps that can be taken to reduce [gun fatalities].”