Guns portrayed as enemy and savior

March 02, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

An 11-year-old boy spoke of losing his friend Tauris Johnson to a drive-by shooting in Baltimore several months ago. A mother from Prince George's County described how it felt to lose her son to a gun-wielding robber last fall.

"Until you rock your lifeless child in your arms, you will never know" the pain, said Johnnie Spears, whose son Darren died of a gunshot wound to the head. "It's a hurt you can never heal."

Those were some of the stories gun control proponents took to a packed hearing room in Annapolis yesterday, hoping to persuade a key legislative committee to support sweeping gun restrictions during this year's session of the General Assembly.

But with equal passion, gun rights advocates pleaded with lawmakers not to take away their ability to protect themselves.

Jan A. Barnes of Baltimore told the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee of a man who tried to break down her back door. In two other incidents, men tried to get into her car while she was behind the wheel.

On all three occasions, she said, she fended them off with a .357 Magnum. "The reason I'm all and well is that I was able and willing to defend myself," she said.

And so it went yesterday as advocates on both sides of the issue produced prosecutors, police officers and crime victims to respond to one another before an audience of more than 200. At times, 40 people were waiting to get into the hearing room, where there was standing room only.

Amid the steady flow of violent crime, gun control has emerged as one of the top issues in the Maryland General Assembly this election year. Between the House and Senate, legislators have introduced a total of 68 gun control and gun-related crime bills. The number is up from 47 in 1993.

The bills range from a ban on handgun ownership to measures that would increase penalties for those who use firearms while committing a crime.

The Judiciary Committee focused much of its attention yesterday on a proposal supported by the governor and the state's main gun control group, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse.

The ambitious legislative package would require photo licenses for handgun buyers and would ban 24 types of so-called assault weapons. It also would limit handgun purchases to one per person a month, a measure similar to one passed in Virginia last year.

Before the meeting, committee chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. declined to predict how his 21 members would vote on the proposal. "I think it's too close to call," he said.

During the hearing, the debate seemed to break down at times along regional and racial lines. Black urban legislators pleaded with gun rights groups to help them control firearms in their neighborhoods.

"Young children are being killed on a daily basis," said Del. Michael Arrington, a Prince George's Democrat, who is black. "I go to their funerals. How can you help us make our community safer?"

Gun rights advocates, however, said there was no room for compromise on bills that affected law abiding citizens' access to firearms. Instead, they supported bills that called for stiffer sentencing of criminals.

"Do I look like a criminal?" asked Hap Baker, who represented the Carroll County Sportsmen's Association and is white.

"You want to license them," said gun rights advocate Robert McMurray, pointing to opponents of gun control seated in the audience.

Despite some passionate and reasoned pleas yesterday, no one could offer solid evidence that any of the various proposals would make Maryland safer.

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