Aided in part by a recent flurry of violence in the Baltimore area, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed ban on sales of military-style assault guns cleared its first legislative hurdle today.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 13-9 to approve a modified version of the governor's bill. The proposal would ban the sale of 38 assault rifles and pistols and allow the state's Handgun Roster Board to add weapons to the list.
The bill now goes to the full House. If it wins approval there, it will go to the Senate, where it is expected to encounter greater opposition.
"As with any gun control legislation, this will be a big fight," predicted David S. Weaver, a lobbyist on behalf of Handgun Control Inc., which yesterday launched a $20,000 radio and television campaign for the bill.
An opponent of the bill, the National Rifle Association's Richard Manning, said he was not surprised at the vote of the House committee.
"We will be fighting it every step of the way," Manning said.
The bill would prohibit the sale of the 38 specified weapons and would require current owners to apply for a special permit, pay a $100 fee and prove that they have not been convicted of drug crimes and other offenses.
The committee also passed today a modified version of another Schaefer administration proposal that would impose penalties on gun owners if they fail to take adequate steps to prevent access to the guns by children.
Schaefer's original assault weapon bill would have given the state police superintendent authority to add weapons to the list. But committee members preferred to give that authority to the state's handgun board, which is a panel of law enforcement, gun control and gun rights advocates created in 1988 to administer a ban on so-called Saturday Night Specials. The board's decisions would be subject to review by a House committee.
As it shifted responsibility to the board, the committee also tightened the instructions the board will use in evaluating weapons. One amendment will allow the board to add to the list of banned weapons guns that are copies or reproductions of those specifically banned, as well as those similar in design and weapons designed for military use. The original bill would have allowed more discretion in adding weapons to the ban.
Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington County, supported that amendment, saying he wanted to limit the board's discretion to add guns.
At Poole's request, the committee also struck from the list of prohibited assault weapons the Colt AR-15 semiautomatic. Some gun enthusiasts had testified that the weapon is used in sporting competition.
Opponents said the bill would restrict the rights of gun owners and not stem violent crime.
"I think we're barking up the wrong tree. . . . As soon as urban areas start fighting crime the way it should be, you will see a reduction in violent crime," said Del. Richard C. Mathews, R-Carroll.
Proponents, however, pointed to a spate of recent crimes in the Baltimore area as evidence that the weapons were a threat.
Each of the crimes involved semiautomatic -- though not necessarily assault-type -- weapons.
In one incident, an out-of-state trucker is charged in the fatal shooting of one man and the wounding another at a truck stop in Howard County. The killer used a semiautomatic handgun.
In another incident, two gunmen used what are believed to have been semiautomatic weapons to spray nearly 50 bullets into a crowd on a West Baltimore street corner, killing two men and wounding two others.
And on Friday, police arrested members of a gang who, armed with shotguns and semiautomatic handguns, are believed to have robbed 18 food stores and restaurants in the Baltimore area since October.
"You can read all the statistics you want, but Thursday night when I turned on the TV there were . . . bodies on North Avenue," said Del. Curt Anderson, D-City.
Committee Chairman John S. Arnick, D-Balto. Co., pointed to the federal prohibition on machine gun purchases passed in 1986 and said, "When is the last time you heard of a machine gun being used in a crime?"
He said the spate of murders and robberies last week proved the weapons are a threat.
Before the vote, both sides worked to turn the incidents to their advantage.
Del. Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, a leading advocate of gun control, copied newspaper reports of last Tuesday's shootings and distributed them to colleagues. The governor's office contacted the police departments trying to track down details of the incidents, which bill supporters felt would help rebut opponents' claims that assault weapons are rarely used in crimes in Maryland.
Gun advocates have stressed that the proposed law would not have prevented the killing at the truck stop because the weapon allegedly used -- a .22-caliber Intratech assault pistol -- was purchased out of state. That weapon is not on the list of guns that Schaefer's bill would outlaw outright. But it is similar, and advocates think the amended bill would allow such weapons to be added to the list later.