Schaefer to target regulation of sales at gun shows this legislative session Bill would require background checks

January 13, 1993|By Michael Hill and Tom Bowman | Michael Hill and Tom Bowman,Staff Writers

The unregulated sale of handguns and assault weapons at gun shows will be a major target of the Schaefer administration at this year's session of the General Assembly, which convenes today in Annapolis.

The gun show bill may well provide some of the biggest fireworks during what could be a relatively quiet 90-day session as lawmakers and the governor recover from three years of bitter budget-cutting battles.

The measure, announced by the administration yesterday, is among 20 to 25 expected to be included in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's legislative package. The package also is likely to include measures to help small companies deal with the rising cost of health care and a variety of bills expanding community service in both criminal justice and educational settings.

The gun show bill is designed to close a loophole that allows people to bypass background checks and waiting periods by buying weapons at the popular weekend events in armories and meeting halls across the state.

Currently, selling guns at shows can be considered a private transaction and thus not subject to the state's regulations on handguns and assault weapons. The administration bill would require anyone selling regulated weapons at even one gun show to purchase a $10 license and undergo a background check. Anyone selling at more than five such shows in a year would have to buy the same $50 license required of gun shop owners.

In both cases, people buying weapons from these licensed dealers would then fall under current regulations that require background checks and waiting periods before the guns can be purchased.

"This is a big business," Sgt. Bernard Shaw, who heads the gun registration division of the state police, said of the gun shows.

"We are not talking about private collectors. We are talking about people putting out tables full of weapons every week. These can be sold without paperwork, sometimes without receipts," Sergeant Shaw said. "We have no way of tracking them, so we don't know how many weapons used illegally came from gun shows."

David S. Iannucci, the governor's legislative director, said similar legislation was introduced last year but not by the administration. It was a departmental bill sponsored by the state police that died in a House committee.

"We think we can convince the legislators that this is not an additional regulation on guns," Mr. Iannucci said. "They have already agreed that handguns and assault rifles should be regulated. This bill just insures that that happens."

Mr. Iannucci also said that the always-powerful gun lobby might be split on this bill, with gun dealers supporting it since it brings possible competitors under the same regulations they must abide by.

"I think a level playing field is always a good idea," Bill Kelley, who owns The Gun Center in Frederick, said yesterday. "As a gun enthusiast, I want to make sure that guns get in the hands of people who will use them responsibly. Anyone who goes to a gun show to avoid the legal requirements is, by definition, not acting responsibly."

But James Milner, who oversees legislative matters in Maryland for the National Rifle Association, said he expects his organization will oppose the measure.

"We think there are plenty of laws on the books already to deal with this," Mr. Milner said.

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, indicated that the gun-control lobby will be fully behind the legislation.

"Since 1966, the state police have stopped 12,000 convicted criminals from buying handguns," he said. "We have no way of knowing how many criminals went to gun shows to get guns."

One legislator who opposed last year's measure indicated he hadn't changed his mind.

"What is this going to accomplish?" asked Del. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., R-Baltimore County. He said many gun control bills "sound good," but rather than achieve a desired effect merely "penalize law-abiding citizens."

The insurance measure expected in the governor's package, known as "small group market reform," would require insurers and HMOs to offer coverage to small companies, and to each employee in those companies, regardless of health.

The legislation is similar to a bill which passed the House last year but died in the Senate as the session ended.

Although the specifics on the proposal have yet to be worked out, the bill would limit the wide differences in prices insurers charge based on such criteria as the age or health of workers at a company with fewer than 25 employees.

Last year's bill also would have curbed the amount of yearly insurance increases for small employers. And it included a mechanism to allow for pooling some of the excess costs that would result from such a plan.

Administration officials have yet to decide whether to expand the required coverage of pre-existing conditions beyond small businesses.

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