ANNAPOLIS -- The Schaefer administration argued yesterday that assault weapons should be banned in Maryland because their only purpose is to kill people, but it ran into difficulty proving that has been a problem in the state.
At a five-hour hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, administration officials -- backed by chiefs of police from across the state, teachers, doctors, labor-union representatives and others -- asked the General Assembly for authority to ban 39 high-firepower guns and to give the superintendent of state police authority to add others to the list.
But a crowd of several hundred unhappy gun enthusiasts, who like everyone else yesterday had to pass through metal detectors before entering the hearing room, demanded evidence of a problem. They challenged backers of the bill to provide statistics showing that police in Maryland have been shot at with assault guns or that the weapons have been used in a large number of Maryland crimes.
Administration and police officials alike conceded such statistics do not exist.
But, based on what they described as a sudden, worrisome proliferation of assault weapons confiscated in connection with other crimes, they predicted an increase in assault-weapon shootings if nothing is done to stem their spread among drug dealers, street gangs and other criminals.
"The statistics are not the issue," said Col. Elmer H. Tippett, the state police superintendent. "The issue is that there is no need for this type of weapon in society. We're being proactive; we're not waiting for it to become a problem here in Maryland."
Bills to ban military-style assault weapons began to appear in state legislatures around the country after five children died in a Stockton, Calif., playground shooting two years ago. California and New Jersey have since adopted bans on such weapons, which are generally capable of rapidly firing dozens of rounds of ammunition and often are equipped with bayonets, silencers or flash suppressors.
Yet opponents -- some of them National Rifle Association members who stood outside the hearing room loudly chanting "N.R.A., N.R.A." -- said if the assault-weapon ban becomes law, the only people affected will be law-abiding citizens who bought them legally but who then could become felons by failing to register them as required by the bill. They argued that criminals probably obtain their guns illegally and would be unaffected by this or any other gun-control law.
Sanford M. Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in last fall's Democratic primary, said sales of assault rifles were declining until "media hype" about bills intended to ban them suddenly sparked people to buy them.
Maryland would become only the third state in the nation to ban assault weapons if the measure passes. Similar measures have failed in the past, but they never before have been sponsored by the governor.
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, predicted yesterday that the Judiciary Committee and then the full House probably would pass an amended version of the bill. But he said he thought it then could die in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
While the vote there is expected to be close, administration officials became more hopeful after the panel's conservative chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, acknowledged last month, "There are some weapons that people don't necessarily have to have in their possession."
David S. Iannucci, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's chief legislative officer, said he believes that a majority of lawmakers now recognize "there is a category of weapons that has no legitimate acceptance in a civilized society." Once that threshold has been passed, he said, the question becomes what is the best way to prohibit such guns.
Also at issue yesterday was separate legislation proposed by Governor Schaefer that would require adults to keep all guns under lock and key if it is reasonably likely that a minor child would have access to them. Failure to do so would carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
That proposal came under attack from witnesses who said the requirement would make it more difficult for people to get to their guns in a hurry for self-defense and who said that accidental firearms fatalities involving children are rare.