ANNAPOLIS -- In the midst of a veritable lobbying war over the Schaefer administration's proposed ban on assault weapons, gun advocates took aim at an unconventional target yesterday: the State House press corps.
At a briefing staged exclusively for journalists at an Annapolis-area gun club, representatives of the National Rifle Association instructed reporters on the history of semiautomatic firearms and then turned out to a firing range for some hands-on experience.
Firing off multiple bursts from an AR15 rifle to wreak damage on gallon jugs of water seemed a forbidden pleasure for the eight assembled journalists but was not without precedent. Last month, reporters witnessed many of the same weapons fired by experts during a demonstration at a police training facility in Davidsonville with Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
"I was not surprised to find some reporters had no experience with firearms or very little," said Tom Wyld, an NRA spokesman who attended the 2 1/2 -hour event. "Our suspicion was that their personal, hands-on experience was limited."
Officials of the NRA admit that overtures to reporters are not their standard practice. But they are additional evidence of the passionate lobbying effort surrounding the administration's proposed assault weapons ban.
For legislators, besieged by representatives of both sides of the issue, the scene is familiar. They were similarly inundated three years ago when the legislature considered, and ultimately approved, a measure to limit the sale of cheap and easily concealed handguns after a highly emotional debate and a subsequent multimillion dollar referendum fight.
Since early last week, gun control advocates havebeen airing advertisements on cable television in Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties and on radio station WBAL in Baltimore at a cost of more than $20,000.
The ads are hard-edged and graphic. The radio message claims, for instance, that the guns "fire 20 rounds in less than five seconds, tearing through human flesh, crushing bone, killing men, women, and children with horrifying efficiency."
David S. Weaver, a lobbyist for Washington-based Handgun Control Inc., which paid for the campaign, said that the four counties were chosen for the ads to sway potential swing votes in the House of Delegates.
The campaign was timed to coincide with House action on the bill, and the commercials urged viewers and listeners to call their local delegates.
"Those were the areas we thought we could pick up votes," said Mr. Weaver.
"The NRA has more money and the same capability, but their technique is different."
The bill's opponents have encouraged gun owners to show up for hearings by placing newspaper classified ads (in the "guns for sale" section). Mass mailings to NRA members in Maryland have encouraged people to visit, write or call their local 'u legislators.
"We try to concentrate on those people whose minds we think we
can change," said Robert McMurray, spokesman for the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association.
"We've done mailings. The NRA has done mailings. I'm sure there will be more."
So far, Mr. Weaver's techniques appear to be the ones paying off. The House Judiciary Committee endorsed last week the proposal that would ban a list of 38 specific semiautomatic assault-style weapons and permit a state board to add copies of such weapons to the list.
On the House floor yesterday, the bill's supporters won two early test votes, beating back proposed amendments by lopsided margins and -- to a mild chorus of boos from some delegates -- delayed further consideration until today.
The disappointment by some delegates over the delay was understandable: It will mean both sideswill continue their aggressive lobbying.
"There may have been more calls on this than even the abortion bill," said Delegate Mary Louise Preis, D-Harford. "There's a fairly organized well-organized network making their feelings known, and they tried to reach me a lot."
House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, has been a particularly obvious target for the bill's opponents. A Judiciary Committee member, he voted for the bill despite widespread opposition in his conservative, Western Maryland district.
"This kind of an issue generates so much emotion, and I've taken a lot of criticism for it," Delegate Poole said. "My own feeling is that it's the right thing to do."
Administration officials said they were increasingly confident that the bill, was likely to pass the House, along with another Schaefer proposal to require that guns be kept safe from children, but are taking no chances this week.
"This is one of the rare instances where we've had to make a concerted effort on the House floor," said David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer. "The NRA is a well-oiled, huge organization. We're just a few battling the forces of evil."
Nevertheless, the biggest showdown is expected to come in the Senate, where the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on the bill tomorrow. The 11-member committee was the toughest hurdle three years ago for legislation that limited the sale of cheap and easily concealed handguns known as Saturday Night Specials.
Two potential swing votes, Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, and Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, have generally opposed gun control legislation in the past. Senator Jimeno received key support from Governor Schaefer during a tough re-election fight last year, however, and may be reluctant to buck the administration in a close committee vote.