Frederick County lawmakers are split on a controversial gun-control measure proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, with Democrats behind the proposal and Republicans urging a focus on mental health screening and other strategies to stem firearm violence.
“We have to address the mental health. That’s our first and foremost priority,” said Del. Kathy Afzali (R-Dist. 4A) of Middletown.
Afzali, along with Del. Kelly Schulz (R-Dist. 4A) of New Market, is part of a group of a dozen women Republican legislators supporting measures other than those proposed by O’Malley (D), which would ban military-style assault weapons and increase licensing requirements, along with strengthening data sharing and crisis resources.
Afzali said she thinks O’Malley’s proposal is “missing the mark” by focusing on certain types of guns rather than issues such as increased mental health services and the availability of drugs to young people.
“There are so many social issues involved with this that have nothing to do with guns,” she said.
However, Afzali applauded the governor’s proposal to make more money available for school security, but she wants a police resource officer in every school.
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office assigns deputies to each of the county’s 10 high schools, plus an alternative high school. The deputies also regularly visit each of the schools in the feeder districts.
County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) said it would cost $7.1 million to put an officer in every school.
Schulz said legislators have to look at the roots of the problem, such as how to remove the stigma of mental health issues, and better educating people on how to handle and respond to someone who’s experiencing a mental health emergency.
The state of Connecticut, where a man killed 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, has very strong gun laws, she said.
She is worried that a bill such as the one proposed by O’Malley, aside from raising constitutional questions, might lull people into a “false sense of security.”
O’Malley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee at a Feb. 6 hearing that the bill — which includes a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and would impose stricter licensing requirements such as fingerprinting and more extensive safety training — tried to address practical concerns.
“This is not about ideology, this is about public safety,” he said. This is about doing reasonable things that work to save lives.”
Even the Frederick County Board of Commissioners has joined in the debate over the state legislation.
On Jan. 31, the five commissioners sent letters to the heads of several committees in the General Assembly who will be handling the governor’s bill, expressing the board’s opposition to the legislation.
Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) said people need to take the emotion out of the gun control discussion and focus on practical measures.
The letter said the board would support legislation to restrict gun ownership by people who suffer from certain mental illnesses, as well as to increase penalties on those who commit crimes with a gun.
But Young said the proposed bill is an emotional response to incidents like the Connecticut shooting.
He also accused O’Malley of trying to one-up New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), whose state recently passed increased gun control measures.
Both O’Malley and Cuomo have been mentioned as possible contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Jenkins (R), who testified at the Feb. 6 Senate hearing, told The Gazette on Feb. 7 that the legislation was “absolutely the most outrageous bill I’ve ever seen.”
The hearing lasted more than eight hours, with estimates of the number of people who wanted to testify ranging from several hundred into the thousands.
Jenkins said he doubted the practicality of a measure that would require gun owners to show that they’ve completed an approved firearms safety course before being eligible to buy a gun.
“They know full well that that training is not going to be easily available” because there’s no structure in place to provide it, Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he favors strengthening background checks for mental illness, better access to juvenile records to identify violent youth offenders and making sure local court records are checked for incidents of domestic violence, a history of protective orders or other warning signs.
Schulz said she’d like to see a shift in funding to some existing mental health programs to try and identify people who may be at risk before they harm themselves or someone else.
“Let’s look at funding those programs first,” Schulz said.
Del. Michael Hough (R-Dist. 3B) of Brunswick has proposed a bill that would make it easier to have someone committed to a mental health facility.
Currently, Maryland law only allows people to be committed if they present a danger to themselves or others, Hough said.
His bill would take a more proactive approach by changing the language from requiring someone to “present” a danger to being “reasonably expected, in the foreseeable future, to present” a threat.
There’s a fine line between protecting people’s civil liberties and the point where they become dangerous, Hough said.
He called O’Malley’s bill “political grandstanding” in the wake of the Connecticut shooting, and said the state needs to better enforce the gun laws it already has in place.
Del. Galen Clagett (D-Dist. 3A) said that by focusing on mental health, Republicans in Annapolis are trying to evade the real issue of the need for some type of gun control legislation.
“If they’re so interested in those issues, why haven’t they voted for the budget all these years?” he said.
Schulz said just because Republicans have voted against the governor’s budget, it doesn’t mean they don’t agree with any of the various programs in it.
If lawmakers are saying children are a priority, they need to prioritize funding to reflect that view, she said.
Gun control is one of several areas that need to be addressed, along with mental health, violent video games and others, Clagett said.
Clagett, a gun owner who said he’s hunted his entire life and was a member of a rifle team in high school, said more Americans need to learn about gun safety and the role the weapons have played in the nation’s heritage.
He said he learned early on that a gun was a serious instrument and only meant to be used for certain things.
Clagett said he supports a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“I don’t hunt deer with an AK-47,” he said.
Sen. Ron Young (D-Dist. 3) of Frederick said he supports hunters and people who keep guns in their homes for protection. He would also like to find a way to help gun collectors who would be subject to the new law.
But he said he also supports enhanced background checks, a ban on assault weapons and would like to see magazines limited to 10 to 12 rounds.
“I don’t think the three things that I mentioned infringe on the Second Amendment [of the Constitution],” Young said.
He said he’s in favor of a comprehensive approach, looking at issues such as school safety and mental health issues.
“But a comprehensive approach does not exclude guns,” Young said.
Limiting magazine size won’t save lives because an experienced gun user can change magazines in a matter of seconds, Afzali said.
Afzail, who admitted she faced an enormous learning curve on the gun issue, said many people’s gut reaction is probably that background checks and banning certain types of weapons make sense after an incident such as the one in Connecticut.
But lawmakers have to make an extra effort to step back and look at all sides of the issues, she said.
“Our job as legislators is to be deliberative,” she said.
Staff Writer Daniel Leaderman contributed to this story.