Gunning for Walter Baker

January 31, 1994

C "An overwhelming number of Marylanders want tougher gun laws," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said in his State of the State address earlier this month. "Gun legislation can't be bottled up in a committee." Yet that is exactly what Cecil County's Sen. Walter M. Baker has in mind.

Senator Baker is chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. As far as he's concerned, the only good handgun bill is a dead handgun bill. The fact that public opinion polls indicate overwhelming sentiment in favor of tougher handgun restrictions doesn't faze him. The fact that nearly as many Marylanders die from handgun wounds as from auto accidents doesn't seem to matter a bit. Nor does the Cecil County chairman seem upset that his stance is viewed by a growing number of his Senate colleagues as outdated and damaging to them politically.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, recently delivered an unofficial ultimatum to Mr. Baker when he announced that a bill proposing a tax on ammunition would be sent to the Budget and Taxation Committee, not to Mr. Baker's judicial panel. This strategy gives handgun-control supporters a real boost. The ammunition-tax bill can easily be re-shaped, either in committee or on the Senate floor, into a far broader handgun-control measure. The votes seem to be there for passage of some type of handgun bill.

What Mr. Baker refuses to admit, but what Mr. Miller knows all too well, is that all members of the Senate owe it to their constituents to be heard on this explosive matter. Everyone in Maryland knows how Walter Baker stands on handgun measures, but what about the other members of the Senate? As Mr. Miller put it, all 47 senators "should have the opportunity to vote so that, before the public goes to the voting booths [in September], they'll know how their representatives stand on this important issue."

At a minimum, the Senate ought to vote to ban assault-style pistols. It should also limit the purchase of regulated firearms to one a month -- as the state of Virginia did last year and Gov. Thomas R. Carper is proposing for Delaware this year. Otherwise, Maryland and Delaware are in danger of becoming the gun-running capitals of the mid-Atlantic region.

We urge Mr. Miller and other Senate leaders to find a way to bring a gun-control bill to the Senate floor early in this session. Then it would be up to the full body to determine if, as we believe, a comprehensive handgun-control package is in order. It is time for all members of the Senate to be heard on this issue. The days of legislators being held captive by a single obstructionist senator are over.

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