Gun control advocates, foes ready for battle

February 06, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Supporters will invoke the names of slain children; opponents will raise the specter of an American Hitler.

The issue dividing them is gun control. And as it moves to center stage in Annapolis tomorrow, it promises to generate some of the most incendiary debate in this year's legislative session.

Amid the sound and fury, though, nobody is expected to offer much evidence on the key question: Will any of the proposed measures make Maryland safer?

That is because no one really knows.

The proposals to be submitted to the legislature are either too new or too hard to analyze in the states where they have been enacted. Nor is the past much of a guide. Despite more than 25 years of gun control legislation in Maryland, there is virtually no research on its effects.

Buoyed by polls showing strong public support this year, the governor and gun control advocates are pushing their most ambitious agendas ever.

Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, a gun control lobby group, wants handgun owners to be licensed and handgun sales to be limited to two per person a year. A bill containing the measures is scheduled for introduction tomorrow night in the House of Delegates. That will coincide with a rally outside the State House featuring former presidential press secretary James Brady, injured in the attempted assassination of President Reagan.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's package, already introduced, would ban 18 models of semiautomatic pistols and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Advocates will argue that, taken together, the various measures can begin to reduce the number of guns circulating in Maryland from an estimated 2 million and to reduce the state's rising homicide rate as well. Groups opposing gun control will counter that the state's current laws haven't worked and that further legislation would mark another step down the road toward totalitarianism.

"This looks like the way the Nazis worked," said gun rights advocate Robert A. McMurray, referring to proposals to license handguns and limit private ownership. Like Adolf Hitler, he says, gun opponents want to identify who has firearms so they can eventually take them all away.

Among Mr. Schaefer's most controversial proposals is one to limit purchases of handguns and some so-called assault weapons to one per person per month. The measure resembles a Virginia law passed last year to prevent people from buying guns in bulk and then selling them to criminals.

Bonnie Kirkland, the governor's chief legislative officer, says a similar law in Maryland would slow the flow of guns to criminals and keep gunrunners from moving their business here. The law, she noted, should not harm legitimate gun enthusiasts.

"People are hard pressed to explain why they would need to buy more than one handgun or one assault weapon a month," she said.

Mr. McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle & Pistol Association, a gun rights group, says the proposed law is superfluous. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms already requires gun shop owners to report anyone who buys two or more handguns over a period of three days.

"It's a solution in search of a problem," he says.

Fewer bullets

In addition to purchase limits, the governor wants to ban ammunition magazines that carry more than 20 bullets. Some hold as many as 50.

The logic is that someone opening fire would have to switch ammunition clips, giving people a chance to either escape or disarm the assailant.

That's what happened in December when a man opened fire on a Long Island commuter train. Other passengers tackled him as he was trying to reload for the third time.

But by then, four people had been killed and 21 injured. In that case, a law like the one proposed for Maryland wouldn't have helped. The pistol used held a maximum of 15 bullets.

The governor decided against trying to ban magazines that hold fewer than 20 bullets because sportsmen use them in target competitions.

Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse has a comprehensive plan that would, among other things, license handgun owners. The process would require applicants to take a written test, submit their fingerprints and have a photo taken.

Handgun owners would have to report private sales to the state police. If they didn't, they could be held liable in civil court for any harm caused by the weapon.

Vincent DeMarco, the group's executive director, said the process and the financial risk should dissuade people from buying guns for criminals.

"Our legislation will give law enforcement [officers] the tools they need to keep handguns out of the wrong hands," Mr. DeMarco said.

'Crimes we didn't commit'

But Mr. McMurray believes that laws will never stop the black market for guns, in part because firearms last a long time.

"I've got a 1903 Colt New Service [revolver,]" he said. "I took it out a couple of months ago and shot it, and it worked fine."

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