Handgun control bills likely to be defeated

March 05, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

The toughest parts of a legislative package backed by the governor and the state's main gun control lobby appear headed for defeat in the General Assembly in the face of stiff opposition from gun enthusiasts.

Officials from the governor's office and Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse (MAHA) said yesterday that proposals to license handgun buyers, regulate private sales and restrict commercial sales to one handgun per person per month will probably fail in the legislature.

"At the present, it doesn't look like we'll be able to pass our licensing scheme this session," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of MAHA.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Bonnie A. Kirkland, the governor's chief legislative officer, also said the proposals appeared unlikely to pass. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has predicted that the entire Senate will vote on a gun control bill this year, but that these measures will not be a part of it.

Mr. DeMarco said he was disappointed that the measures appear doomed this year. But he emphasized that proposed bans on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines now moving through the legislature would be big steps.

"If we can ban assault weapons . . . we will have made significant strides," said Mr. DeMarco. "But either this year or next year we LTC will have to deal with the broader problem of handgun proliferation by enacting licensing for handgun purchasers, regulating private sales and limiting the numbers of handgun purchases."

While those measures were considered long shots in this year's legislature, the pessimistic prognosis for licensing comes only about one month after a Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll found a clear majority of Marylanders support the idea.

Mason-Dixon has not polled Marylanders on handgun sale restrictions, according to its president, Brad Coker. But a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll in December found that 69 percent of respondents nationally favored limiting gun purchases to one a month.

State police have strongly backed the measures in the legislature this year as a way to keep guns out of the wrong hands. The licensing system would require purchasers to be photographed and fingerprinted before receiving a handgun.

Regulation of private sales would help close a massive loophole through which criminals now routinely obtain guns, said 1st Sgt. Bernard Shaw, who oversees firearm regulation for the state police. Restricting handgun sales to one per month would also prevent gunrunners from buying firearms in bulk and then distributing them to criminals, Sergeant Shaw said.

Despite the governor's support and large sponsorship in the House of Delegates, the measures have run into trouble this year. They are new proposals, Ms. Kirkland said.

It is the nature of the Maryland General Assembly that it often takes a few years for legislators to become comfortable with new bills and to pass them, she said.

"The legislature does not always follow the majority will of the people," Ms. Kirkland said. "Just because there's fairly broad support [for gun control], it's still very controversial here."

And, despite recent losses, the gun lobby remains powerful in Annapolis. These types of restrictions strike a nerve with many gun rights advocates who fear that any restriction on gun ownership is a step toward a total ban and totalitarianism.

Gun control proponents have fared better this session with a proposed ban on 18 types of semiautomatic weapons. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has made it a top priority over the years and, with the help of Mr. Miller, it appears headed to the Senate floor where legislators may get their first real chance to vote on the issue. Critics point out that so-called assault weapons -- which have been used in mass public slayings -- account for only a small percentage of violent crime, while conventional handguns have become more and more popular. Gun control advocates counter that the weapons can do a tremendous amount of damage and have no legitimate sporting or self-defense use. Critical votes on the ban are expected in key legislative committees next week.

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