The Maryland lawmaker who shot down the Schaefe administration's proposed ban on assault weapons last month now says he will support similar legislation when the General Assembly meets again next year.
So does this mean that Sen. Walter M. Baker, the conservative Democrat and country lawyer from Cecil County, has had a change of heart when it comes to keeping semiautomatic, military-style weapons out of the public's hands?
Hardly. The powerful chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee readily admits that there's a hitch to his post-session turnaround on assault weapons. And he's willing to make a deal to boost one of his favorite conservative causes.
Baker, a perennial advocate of streamlining the state's lengthy appeal process in death-penalty convictions, said yesterday that will back an assault-weapons ban if fellow lawmakers support his plan to simplify capital punishment laws.
"That's what democracy's all about," he said. "You give something. You get something."
Last session Baker tried but failed to move a complex bill to reduce the time and money the state spends reviewing death-penalty appeals. He said he wants to simplify existing legal procedures and make it easier to execute condemned prisoners.
To reach that end, Baker has asked his committee to study both the assault-weapons bill and the death-penalty issues this summer. If the interim study goes as planned, Baker said, he will sponsor two bills during the 1992 session that should please gun-ban supporters and death-penalty advocates.
The catch, he said, is that the fate of the bills will be linked, both in the language of the bills and in how they are treated in committee votes.
"If one doesn't pass, the other won't either," he said.
Baker was the key player last March when his influential Senate committee killed Gov. William Donald Schaefer's assault-weapons bill by a 7-4 vote.
The independent committee chairman incurred Schaefer's wrath when he refused to grant a last-minute telephone plea from the governor to postpone the committee vote until bill supporters could lobby lawmakers.
Schaefer's bill, which won passage in the House, would have prohibited the manufacture, sale and possession of 39 military-style weapons. In its early stages, the bill also would have given State Police the authority to determine what other guns are added to the list of banned weapons.
Baker said he will back a modified version of last session's bill, although he opposes giving any individual or group outside the legislature the power to add weapons to the list.
Baker's announcement that he will support a gun-ban bill came in the form of a routine letter to General Assembly leaders yesterday. It caught some State House observers by surprise. Baker said he came up with the idea himself and did not confer with the governor or Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.
"I was reflecting on the session afterwards," he said. "We learn from history. It came to me out of the blue. I don't know why. It seemed like a reasonable issue."
Baker said he received overwhelming support from telephone callers and letter writers for his handling of the Schaefer gun bill. But, he added, he senses a growing national mood to limit the use and ownership of certain types of weapons.
If tighter restrictions on guns are inevitable, he said, then voters with conservative ideologies -- such as death-penalty advocates ought to get something in return.
"Our position does not change," said Bob McMurray, spokesman for the Maryland Rifle and Pistol Association. "We're going to resist any move to ban any type of semiautomatic firearm. Any such ban can only be made on emotional grounds. There are no facts to support such a ban."