Baker to battle gun control plan Schaefer hurtles into his final session at full speed

January 14, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Despite a challenge from the governor yesterday and growing public support for major gun control legislation, one man is poised to prevent the Maryland General Assembly from passing such laws this year.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, who chairs a committee that has killed many of the governor's gun control measures in the past, predicted defeat for most of this year's proposals once again.

He also said he will work to keep anyone from circumventing his committee.

"Banning guns has nothing to do with crime," said Mr. Baker, referring to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal yesterday to ban the sale of 18 types of semiautomatic pistols. "The very moment we let them get their foot in the door, they [will] want to push the door open all the way and absolutely ban everything."

Mr. Baker, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he didn't put much stock in recent national polls in which more than 70 percent of respondents said they favored banning semiautomatic pistols.

"I don't believe in polls," the conservative Cecil County Democrat said.

Mr. Baker, however, stopped short of saying that he would work to kill the governor's gun package. Instead, he said he would listen to the testimony and noted that his is only one of the 11 votes on the committee.

"I'm always willing to look at anything somebody brings in," he said.

By reaffirming his stance, though, Mr. Baker seemed headed on a collision course with the man who appointed him committee chairman, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Mr. Miller said yesterday that he will work with the committee to bring gun control legislation for a vote by the full Senate.

All 47 senators "should have the opportunity to vote so that, before the public goes to the voting booths, they'll know how their representatives stand on this important issue," said Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

The Senate president has proposed using a bait-and-switch on Mr. Baker's committee, traditionally the gateway for gun legislation in the Senate. He said he will try to persuade committee members to pass a modest gun bill that could then be amended on the floor of the Senate to include at least some portions of the governor's package.

Mr. Baker said earlier this week that he would oppose any effort to circumvent his committee -- even one by his boss.

"I'm not going to put any vehicles out there on the Senate floor that will enable gun people to amend and come up with what I consider to be the wrong kind of laws," he said.

Apprised of his committee chairman's position, Mr. Miller would only say that Mr. Baker "is a reasonable man and reasonable men can be reasoned with."

In his State of the State speech yesterday, Governor Schaefer proposed a five-point gun control plan and specifically took aim at Mr. Baker.

"An overwhelming number of Marylanders want tougher gun laws," Mr. Schaefer told lawmakers. "Gun legislation can't be bottled up in a committee."

The remark led to the first applause from legislators during the speech in the State House in Annapolis. The governor's proposals include banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 20 bullets and adding at least 40 assault weapons to a list of those subject to a seven-day waiting period.

Mr. Baker said that he opposes these measures as he did last year. What seems to have changed, however, is public opinion in both Maryland and the rest of the United States. Increases in gun-related homicides from the nation's inner cities to the heartland have made gun control a top concern for many.

Semiautomatic handguns make news all the time. In December, a man used one to kill five and injure 18 others on a Long Island commuter train.

Last fall, Congress passed the Brady Bill, requiring a five-day lTC waiting period and a background check for handgun buyers. A Washington Post poll published last Sunday found that two-thirds of Marylanders favor banning the sale of semiautomatic weapons.

None of this seems to have swayed Mr. Baker. He said that he doesn't believe gun bans will stop crime; he would vote for them if he thought they would. Criminals, he says, will simply buy them on the black market. Despite his strong views, he hopes gun control advocates won't think him insensitive.

"I can see where they're coming from," he said. "They see guns used for illegal purposes. Us country folks, we see guns used for legal purposes."

Mr. Baker's traces his attitude toward guns to his upbringing in rural Cecil County on the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay. His father was a farmer and he started hunting for food when he was 10 years old.

As the 1994 legislative session opened this week, Mr. Baker has seemed more isolated and he has come under increasing pressure to soften his stand. While voting on a routine matter during the session's opening day, Mr. Baker found himself casting the only vote against.

"This is on gun control, right?" joked Mr. Miller from the dais of the Senate chamber.

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