Gun control proponents unite

March 01, 1994|By Frank Langfitt and Melody Simmons | Frank Langfitt and Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

On the eve of the first gun control hearing in the General Assembly, the governor and the state's main gun control group joined forces yesterday behind a sweeping legislative package.

The governor threw his support behind a proposal by Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse (MAHA) to license all new handgun owners in the state. Meanwhile, MAHA agreed to testify today in favor of an expanded version of the governor's gun control bill.

The agreement brought together the state's two major gun control proponents as they prepared for the first battle of the legislative session -- a marathon hearing today at 1 p.m. in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee.

"In anticipation of the hearing, we wanted to be speaking with a unified voice," said Bonnie Kirkland, the governor's chief legislative officer.

Specifically, the governor and MAHA will be supporting a proposal that is expected to include not only licensing of handgun owners, but also a broad ban on so-called assault weapons.

It also will include some kind of purchase limits on handguns. Some details remained unclear last night.

The final version will emerge through amendments to the governor's bill.

But passage of that or any other broad gun control legislation is by

no means assured in the Judiciary Committee. Vincent DeMarco, executive director of MAHA, said he believed the 22-member committee was evenly split with two swing votes.

"We've have had a lot of close gun votes in that committee in my eight years, and this will be yet another," said Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican committee member from Baltimore County who opposes sweeping gun legislation.

Yesterday, activists on both sides of the issue focused their attention on two committee Democrats who were considered swing votes -- Del. Gerry L. Brewster of Baltimore County and Del. Mary Louise Preis of Harford County.

Mr. Brewster said he had received 50 phone calls in the past two days on the issue, while Ms. Preis said she received 20 calls yesterday alone.

In recent days, advocates on both sides of the issue have picked up strong support from two important sources -- war veterans and the husband of a crime victim.

The Maryland American Legion weighed in earlier this month against any further gun control measures. Although the state's 91,000 members have previously come out against gun control in general, this was the first time they had taken a position on a

particular gun control bill, said Robert N. Ford, the legion's state administrator.

Mr. Ford said the Legionnaires had not taken a position on the last

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major gun controversy, the 1988 vote on a ban of Saturday Night Specials, because members did not own the cheap weapons, which are often favored by criminals.

But when Mr. Ford found out that the governor's bill would ban two semi-automatic rifles he uses for target practice, that was too much, he said.

"I'm not a gun nut, but I feel the time has come in our country where individuals are trying to destroy our Constitution," said Mr. Ford, referring to the Second Amendment.

Like the Legionnaires, Marty Lombardi is a late-comer to the gun control debate. He came to it unwillingly in the past month after his wife, Julie, was shot in the face Feb. 1 while fleeing a carjacker near Baltimore's Malcolm X Elementary School, where she taught kindergarten.

"People tell me that criminals are still going to get the guns and commit crimes," Mr. Lombardi said Sunday in his Timonium home. "This is true

to some degree, but this (MAHA) bill is an effort to reduce the pool of handguns available."

Mr. Lombardi, who said he was not emotionally strong enough to testify today, hopes that an eight-paragraph statement in favor of the bill will sway legislators.

"Would this bill have saved my Julie from her tragedy?" he said. "Probably not, but maybe it will save someone else someday."

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