Gun-rights activists won a major victory today when a state Senate committee killed a key Schaefer administration bill that would have banned assault-style semiautomatic weapons.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 7-4 against the bill, essentially dooming it for this year. The vote came only hours before the House of Delegates was to consider a similar measure banning the sale or transfer of 38 specific assault weapons.
"This issue is dead," proclaimed Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Eastern Shore, who chairs the Senate committee and opposed the bill.
Richard Manning, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, called the vote "a victory for the Bill of Rights. The facts won out."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, however, saw the committee's action very differently. "The committee has certainly given a victory to crime, to drug dealers," Schaefer said. The committee's action "endangers the lives of civilians," he said.
Schaefer said he planned to reintroduce the bill next year.
Schaefer received another setback today when the Senate committee also killed another administration bill that would have required parents to keep their guns locked or out of reach of children.
Baker said he wanted to kill all the gun bills to prevent legislators from bringing up the issue on the Senate floor, possibly leading to a late-session filibuster between gun control advocates and opponents.
Baker said he did not want to reconsider the assault-weapons bill during this legislative session, which ends in April.
Baker rejected a last-minute telephone request from Schaefer to delay the committee vote. Such a delay was seen as a ploy by supporters of the assault weapons bill to gain time for their lobbying efforts.
Baker also tried to quash efforts to amend the assault weapons bill by committee members who supported it.
"Why don't we quit playing games?" the chairman said testily. "You know I got six or seven votes to kill this."
If the bill had passed, Baker said, gun control advocates would seek eventually to ban all guns. "Pretty soon they're going to say no one can have any guns except the government," he said.
The bill's opponents said the Schaefer administration failed to provide adequate evidence that the rapid-firing assault weapons are more likely than other weapons to be used by criminals and thereby pose a significant risk to the public.
"The groundwork had not been done," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "The vote against the bill should not have been unanticipated."
Miller said Schaefer expressed his dismay at the committee's actions in a phone conversation with him. Schaefer "tended to personalize it as a rebuke by Senator Baker to his administration. I assured him that was not the case," Miller said.