Gun control advocates began an end run around a key state Senate committee yesterday -- bringing an attack from opponents who called the move "a perversion of the legislative process."
Bypassing the conservative Senate panel that traditionally hears and kills most gun control measures, advocates brought an assault weapons bill before a more liberal committee that usually handles health and education matters.
The bill was drawn very narrowly, crafted specifically so that it could be considered and approved by the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. Advocates hope that the bill can be amended -- either in the committee or on the Senate floor -- into a broader gun control measure.
"This is a very dangerous precedent," said Robert McMurray, a spokesman for the Maryland State Rifle & Pistol Association, during the committee hearing yesterday.
"It's going to destroy the Senate," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the panel the bill was designed to get around. "No bill is important enough to circumvent the committee system."
But Sen. John A. Pica Jr., the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it was about time everyone in the state Senate got a chance to vote on the issue of gun control. "You couldn't get a gun bill out of that [Judicial Proceedings] committee even if you tried, irrespective of how innocuous it was," Senator Pica said.
Both sides of the gun debate predicted yesterday that the maneuver will succeed -- that the Environmental Affairs Committee will pass the bill to the Senate floor by a vote of 6-5.
As currently written, the bill would have little effect: It would prohibit people from bringing so-called assault weapons into state government buildings -- something opponents say the law already forbids.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the force behind this legislative sleight of hand, predicted that the bill would be amended to include a ban on 18 types of so-called assault weapons as well as a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Mr. McMurray and other gun rights advocates predicted a filibuster of such measures on the Senate floor.
With crime and gun control as top issues in the state legislature this year, Mr. Miller has found himself under increasing pressure to push a significant gun bill through the Senate committee system.
Should the assault weapons ban make it to the floor, it would mark the first real chance that the entire state Senate has had to vote on the issue.
Mr. Miller defended his decision yesterday to assign the bill to the Environmental Affairs Committee, pointing out that such matters are the prerogative of the Senate president.
But, he added, "I had hoped it wouldn't be as acrimonious."
The state Senate is based on a system of six committees that hear 1,500 or so bills each year according to their area of the law and committee members' expertise.
Rerouting bills to unrelated committees to seek a more favorable vote is highly unusual and frowned upon.
Mr. Pica, however, said he found a legal loophole through which Mr. Miller could push the bill into another committee. Laws involving the State House are, by statute, handled by the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Meanwhile, yesterday in the House of Delegates, two swing votes in the Judiciary Committee decided to back the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Democratic Dels. Gerry L. Brewster of Baltimore County and Mary Louise Preis of Harford County said they could support the measures, potentially giving gun control advocates the 12 votes they need to move the measures to the floor of the House.