One year after 20 students and six adults lost their lives in the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Maryland operates under a new gun law aimed at stemming the tide of gun violence within its borders.
“We experience a Newtown every day in the U.S.,” state Sen. Brian E. Frosh said. “There are 25 to 30 killings by firearms every single day, it’s just not all in one place.”
Gun violence is a serious public health issue, said Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase, a 2014 Democratic candidate for attorney general, and Senate leader on the gun law that passed in 2013.
But he said it took the deadly shootings of schoolchildren last December to galvanize the public and lawmakers behind the Firearms Safety Act of 2013.
The new law, supported by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and adopted by the General Assembly early this year, requires background checks, fingerprinting, training and a licensing fee for everyone purchasing regulated firearms — a category that includes handguns but not shotguns or hunting rifles.
The law also bans about 40 semi-automatic rifles deemed to be “assault weapons” and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. It also restricts gun ownership by certain people with a history of mental illness.
The Firearms Safety Act of 2013 took effect Oct. 1.
Time will tell if the changes actually save lives and prevent a massacre in Maryland.
Opponents, however, say the law missed the mark.
“I think Maryland did nothing whatsoever to curb gun violence,” said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. “All we did was attempt to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens.”
Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City called the law “tyranny” that fails to actually punish “bad guys with guns.”
As just one example, Smigiel said the law allows residents to buy banned weapons out of state and bring those weapons into Maryland but it prevents visitors with permits to carry a concealed weapon in other states from carrying in Maryland.
“The law is just feel-good legislation that really just complicates the matter for law-abiding Marylanders,” Smigiel said. “I don’t think anybody can point to any aspect of that law and show where any portion of it made people safer.”
Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, is confident lives will be saved, particularly by the fingerprint licensing.
“It’s going to prevent people from lying about who they are, and it’s going to deter people from buying guns who are criminals,” DeMarco said. “It’s a really good strategy for reducing gun violence.”
A 2013 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Policy and Research found that once implemented, Maryland’s law would reduce gun trafficking, gun crime and gun homicides.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Maryland fourth in the nation for best gun laws and gave it a grade of A based on thirty policy areas, including background checks and access of dangerous persons to weapons.
“We know from other states that these laws work,” DeMarco said.
But in Maryland, Smigiel said the licensing requirement has an already backlogged Maryland State Police unable to meet the law’s mandate that it only take seven days to process background checks. At present, he said police are taking as long as 120 days to process background checks. If gun shop owners were allowed to do those checks, it would take mere seconds, he said.
State police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Maryland’s new law allows residents who owned assault weapons or magazines over 10 rounds before Oct. 1 to keep those weapons.
As a result, thousands of Marylanders flocked to buy guns in the months between passage and Oct. 1.
Maryland had more purchases of guns in the first nine months of 2013 than in the prior year and half, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons said. Simmons, while a supporter of the bill, is critical of many of its provisions.
“There was literally a tidal wave of gun purchases in Maryland,” Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville said. “I believe Maryland is armed to the teeth and I do not believe the governor’s bill went far enough.” Simmons is a candidate for the District 17 state Senate seat.
“What this law did was [create] a buying frenzy,” Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. said. “Maryland put 100,000 more guns on the street by this law.”
Cluster (R-Dist. 8) of Parkville, a retired police sergeant, said he knows residents who bought assault weapons for no other reason than the coming ban.
“I do not know the solution to gun violence. We will always have gun violence. It is always going to happen,” he said.
One solution might be to make it easier for residents who want to carry a weapon to do so, he said.
Cluster is one of a few lawmakers who do not feel the 2013 law ends the gun debate.
He has filed a bill for 2014 that would place an armed safety resource officer in every Maryland school in an effort to protect students should a shooting like Sandy Hook happen here.
A December 2013 report from the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association found it took responding Newtown officers 8 minutes and 39 seconds from the first call to 911 until they entered Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Just minutes before they entered, shooter Adam Lanza had ended his rampage by taking his own life.
Newtown officers were on the scene only 1 minute and 10 seconds before Lanza’s suicide, the report found.
Cluster said an armed officer in the building could have responded more quickly and potentially saved lives.
Smigiel and Simmons are also proposing amendments to fix what they see as a flaws in the law.
Both said mental illness was under-addressed. Lanza, the man responsible for the Newtown massacre, had a history of mental illness.
Yet long before Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School, Simmons said a Maryland task force was studying the access of those with mental illness to firearms.
An amendment to require mental health professionals report to police when a patient discloses an intent to harm or kill is among those Simmons said he plans to bring to the floor in 2014.
Smigiel said he plans to again propose three amendments addressing mental illness that failed last session, including a bill to provide access to local mental health care for those who are released from long-term facilities.
Smigiel is also proposing a change to eliminate a regulatory requirement that applicants for a handgun license shoot a firearm first.
As the legislature enters an election year, Frosh said it is unlikely it will reopen the gun debate.
“There’s still a lot of things we should do or should have done, but this is such a major change in the law,” Frosh said. “There are a lot of things we’d like to tighten up but I am not optimistic we’ll have another swing at it for while.”