Gun issue back in Assembly Schaefer to offer a ban on new assault guns

January 21, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

After three years of relative peace, both sides of the Maryland gun-control issue are arming themselves for another showdown in Annapolis.

Neither camp has had much success since 1988, when the state became one of the first to enact a ban on small handguns. Since then there have been a slew of proposals to do everything from outlawing AK-47s to adding the right to bear arms to the Maryland Constitution.

Most of the initiatives have died in committee or lost out to other, more pressing issues.

This year, however, the fight will be significantly fiercer with the re-entry to the fray of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was opposed by a gun-rights candidate in last year's Democratic primary.

This week, the governor is to offer one proposal to ban new assault guns and register old ones and another to hold adults responsible when their guns are left accessible to children who then use them to hurt themselves or others.

"This is the best chance we've had in the last three years," said Baltimore County Police Col. Leonard J. Supenski, chief of crime prevention and a supporter of stricter gun-control laws.

The 1988 effort, which was finally won after a costly referendum, left both sides bruised. Since then, a seven-day waiting period has been imposed on purchasers of assault weapons but little else has been accomplished.

"1989 was a breather and 1990 was an election year," Supenski said.

Last week, Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George's, filed a bill in the Senate that would ban the sale or possession of assault weapons.

In the House of Delegates, Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, said he is exploring other proposals that would ban the sale of guns between private individuals, which would force all sales to go through dealers. He also is considering legislation that would require the owners of some guns, or holders of concealed weapons permits, to prove they know how to safely operate them.

"I think the time is right" for handgun legislation, Franchot said, noting the rise in violent crime involving guns.

Meanwhile, opponents of gun restrictions are also taking aim at the State House. Richard Manning, with the National Rifle xTC Association, said he is working with lawmakers considering several bills, including ones that would: stiffen penalties for stealing guns, improve the state's background-checking capabilities, and ease the background check and waiting period requirements for gun owners who have already gone through them.

He promised vigorous opposition to further gun control.

"We're not going to sit back and have honest citizens have their rights stripped away," Manning said.

Schaefer's proposal on child access would impose fines and or jail sentences on gun owners whose weapons fail to take adequate measures to keep their weapons out of the hands of children, said David S. Iannucci, the governor's legislative director.

The law could be complied with by locking up the gun or its ammunition or by keeping a trigger lock in place, he said.

The assault weapon bill would prohibit the sale of a specified list of about 40 semi-automatic rifles, pistols and other military-style weapons. Existing weapons would have to be registered and their owners would have to prove that they have no criminal convictions or are otherwise ineligible to own a gun.

Bills that specify the weapons to be outlawed are generally favored by gun-rights supporters over laws that merely describe the proscribed type of gun. Schaefer's would allow the State Police superintendent to add weapons that meet specific criteria.

"The General Assembly should make the decision and not let some bureaucrat promulgate the regulations," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Eastern Shore, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee that hears such measures.

"There are certain weapons out there that I see no need for," Baker said.

Generally a gun-rights supporter, Baker said he would have to see a proposed law before he could comment. Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he too would have to see specific legislation before he could say whether he will support or oppose it.

"It's always an important issue. Both sides are very emotional," Arnick said.

Manning, with the NRA, said the battle ground will be the state's suburban jurisdictions. Generally, lawmakers from urban areas tend to favor gun control and those from rural regions oppose it, he said.

Unlike the 1988 debate, which focused on cheap weapons, an attempt to ban assault weapons will affect guns that cost $500 to $5,000, Manning said. Legitimate owners of such weapons are more likely to be found in wealthier, suburban areas, he said.

"This is an interesting issue from a class perspective. Now we're looking at an entirely different demographic group," Manning said.

Before 1988, Maryland was not generally considered by gun-rights activists as hostile territory, he said.

"It is rapidly being transferred into a hostile state. . . . We've gone through an amazing transformation," Manning said.

Gwen Fitzgerald, with Handgun Control Inc., agreed that Maryland jumped into the lead of states for gun control in 1988. Others have caught up, and she now gives the state an A minus or a B plus.

Half of the nation's states are "cash and carry," with no gun controls outside of federal regulations, she said.

California, scene of the notorious school-yard shooting in Stockton several years ago, was the first state to ban sales of new assault guns. New Jersey has the toughest law on them, banning sales and restricting ownership of existing guns to those with a "legitimate" sporting use for them.

Florida, Iowa and Connecticut both have child-access laws. Florida's is similar to Schaefer's proposal. Connecticut requires trigger locks be sold with every gun.

"I think it's going to be an interesting session," said Supenski.

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