If you support efforts to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in this country, you should thank Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian Frosh for the great work he did on the evening of Feb. 21 and then this week on the floor of the Senate.
Frosh, who has been an advocate for stricter gun legislation throughout his General Assembly career, guided Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Firearm Safety Act of 2013 from his committee to the Senate floor by a 7-4 vote. By allowing amendments that reduced the fee for licenses and extended the period of the license as well as eliminating the training requirement for former police officers, Frosh undercut some of the opposition while retaining the key provisions regarding licenses and fingerprinting.
Getting the bill out of committee was only one step, but it was an important one. More legislative proposals die at the committee level than at any other place in the process. Having said that, Senate proponents had to fight off numerous floor amendments solely intended to weaken serious regulation of guns. There does not seem to be much middle ground on this issue.
Despite a long history of constitutional interpretation that put limits on even the most revered right of free speech, gun advocates continue to contend that the Second Amendment bestows an absolute right. Some even go further and claim that right comes from God. It’s hard to have a serious conversation with someone at that starting point.
Similarly, the argument that private ownership of guns is necessary to resist some future tyrannical government can’t be traced to any constitutional history. Misquoting Thomas Jefferson, who wasn’t even involved in the writing of the Constitution, is generally the best they can do.
Facts are not terribly useful either in discussions with gun advocates. They dismiss out of hand statistics from other nations whose effective laws have led to dramatically lower rates of gun violence. Similarly, despite their efforts to make enforcement of current laws difficult and ineffective, gun absolutists resolutely ignore evidence that strong state guns laws do, in fact, reduce gun violence.
The horror of Newtown, Conn., has revived a national debate, but, as many have pointed out, people have continued to be shot and killed with guns every day since then. Keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses is important, but it’s not the whole story. That any new laws will not prevent all gun deaths also misses the point.
The bill the Senate approved Thursday — and which is having its first hearing Friday in the House of Delegates — attempts to bring some logical and common-sense restrictions to gun ownership without threatening in any way the basic right that the Supreme Court has affirmed in recent decisions.
The key provisions that came out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee intact and was retained in close Senate votes Thursday would require anyone buying a gun to obtain a license and also be fingerprinted. This step alone would reduce one of the most significant pathways by which individuals obtain guns illegally. There is substantial evidence that many guns are bought by people legally allowed to buy them and then given or sold to people who don’t have that right, in what is known as a “straw purchase.”
If purchasers know that they will be held accountable, that should create a powerful disincentive to engage in straw purchases. States that currently have these laws have significantly lower rates of gun violence than those without them. We ask lots of people to get licenses, whether for driving, hunting and fishing or various professions. We also require lots of categories of individuals to provide fingerprints. If privacy or the creation of public records is your concern, there are today many more intrusive practices, such as electronic surveillance, that you should be worried about.
That brings us back to Thursday’s Senate vote. Prior to the bill coming to the floor, the longtime president of that chamber, Mike Miller, had expressed his strong opposition to the licensing requirement and sounded suspiciously like a survivalist in indicating his unwillingness to be fingerprinted.
Miller gives no appearance of having lost any of his remarkable political skills, but the same cannot always be said about his judgment. He keeps positioning himself on the wrong side of history on critical issues coming before the General Assembly.
At the end, however, Miller, who is a serious student of history, did the right thing in working to shut off a filibuster and get final Senate approval of a measure that can save lives and move the state and the country in a more rational direction.
Now it’s time for the House of Delegates to show the same courage and determination.
Laslo Boyd does consulting in higher education, public policy and politics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.