2 old foes renew battle over bills to ban assault guns Advocates share only their zeal

March 15, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Meet Bob and Vinny, the yin and yang of the gun control debate in Annapolis.

Robert "Bob" McMurray is a rifle coach who believes gun owners are the final check against totalitarianism on American soil.

Vincent "Vinny" DeMarco is a lawyer who believes government must keep more guns out of the hands of citizens to make the nation safer.

About the only thing they have in common is the fervent belief that the other is absolutely wrong.

They will renew their annual joust in State House corridors this week. The General Assembly is holding hearings Wednesday and Thursday on Gov. William Donald Schaefer's bills to ban semiautomatic assault pistols and tighten controls on the sale of weapons at gun shows.

Mr. McMurray is trying to persuade state lawmakers to kill the legislation, while Mr. DeMarco is working for passage.

And don't kid yourself: This is war.

"Our position toward Vinny is, 'Stop attacking us,' " says Mr. McMurray, a spokesman for the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association.

"Bob, I'm not trying to take away your guns. You want to stay home and play with your guns, do it," says Mr. DeMarco, the executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, in a separate interview.

"What I'm saying to Bob McMurray is that there are people out there dying because of handguns," adds Mr. DeMarco, who insists he only wants to outlaw some of Mr. McMurray's guns.

Needless to say, these two aren't pals.

Bob McMurray, 46, is an imposing figure. He is a big man with dark glasses and a low, cigarette-raspy voice. And he bombards opponents with facts and figures that can be intimidating to those with less expertise -- that is, a large percentage of the State House political scene.

Perhaps to keep his listeners off guard, he sprinkles his speech with pointed and colorful language. For example, he believes the pistols the governor wants to ban do not meet the definition of assault weapons.

Except Mr. McMurray phrases it like this: "Calling the guns they want to ban 'assault weapons' is like calling a drag queen a woman. It's missing certain critical functions."

He makes clear, however, that gun control is no joking matter. "There is no compromise here. This is an issue of principle," he says. "To us this issue is as strong and as volatile as abortion is to others."

In fact, Mr. McMurray says he feels as strongly about gun control as "Jews felt toward Nazis."

Is this hyperbole? He says no. "The feelings are that strong. And that's not rhetoric."

He believes that an armed citizenry is the last defense against strongmen who would abuse the power of the U.S. government.

"It's one of the checks and balances. All power derives from the people. One hundred years from now an Adolf Hitler could gain control of the United States and do something like suspend the Constitution. In which case citizens wouldn't have guns to fight back with. An armed citizenry is the final check on government."

A hunter and marksman, Mr. McMurray lobbies lawmakers for free. He makes his living as a part-time high school rifle coach and by managing the business affairs of people who testify in court as expert witnesses.

A very private man, he declines in an interview to answer questions about his family or background.

Mr. McMurray does allow that he is "politically incorrect" and proud of it. He ticks off a list of his interests -- guns, cigarettes, big dogs and motorcycles -- all of which he believes are frowned upon by "enlightened" society.

Although reluctant to discuss some subjects, he brightens when the subject turned to deer hunting. He says he begins each hunt by stalking the animal through the brush, waiting for that perfect moment. He will fire only one shot, and it must penetrate the deer's brain stem. The deer will die instantly. It is more humane that way, he says.

His opponent, Mr. DeMarco, the leader of the Baltimore-based gun control group, could not be more different in appearance, philosophy or style.

"I don't think I'd know him or he'd know me if it weren't for the gun debate," Mr. DeMarco says. "We're in completely different circles, and we do completely different things."

For starters, Mr. DeMarco, 35, has never fired a gun or rifle and has no interest in doing so. He belongs to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a Christian group that rejects war and violence.

The boyish-looking Mr. DeMarco traces his support of gun control to the day his mother, a seamstress from Italy, told him Robert F. Kennedy had been shot to death.

Although only 11, "I was so excited about his presidential race," he recalls. "I will never forget that morning when I got up to go to school and my mother told me Robert Kennedy had been shot. I was devastated. And I remember going into her room and standing by the radio and listening."

He scoffs at his opponent's distrust of American government. "I happen to trust American government," says Mr. DeMarco, a former government official himself. "If Bob McMurray thinks we're about to become a totalitarian nation, I think he's out to lunch."

Mr. DeMarco, who lives in Baltimore with his wife and two young sons, was an assistant attorney general for Maryland from 1983 through 1992. While in that job, he fought to ban Saturday Night Specials (the ban was approved in 1988) and to outlaw assault weapons (those efforts failed in 1991 and last year). On Dec. 28, he left his state job to work part time for the gun control group and join a law firm.

He claimed a victory over Mr. McMurray last year when the legislature passed a law requiring adults to keep loaded guns out of the reach of unsupervised children.

However, he likely will lose the assault pistols ban this year, since he hasn't picked up any more votes on the Senate committee that killed similar proposals in 1991 and 1992.

The fate of the bill regulating gun shows is too close to call.

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