Senators to debate gun issue

March 10, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

A proposed ban on 18 types of semiautomatic pistols is expected to reach the floor of the Maryland Senate for debate as early as tomorrow, with opponents threatening to filibuster or sink the measure with amendments.

"It's going to be a chaotic debate," predicted Sen. John A. Pica Jr., the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill. The issue of gun control "brings out the best and worst in all of us," he said.

The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee approved the bill yesterday by a 6-5 vote, giving the full Senate its first real chance to vote on a ban of so-called assault weapons.

In previous years, assault weapon bills died in the Judicial Proceedings Committee, but a legislative maneuver this time gave the more hospitable environmental panel a chance to send it to the floor.

Senators on both sides say the final vote is too close to call. Proponents claim to have solid commitments from 23 of the chamber's 47 members, while opponents say they have 17 votes firmly against.

Yesterday's committee vote was a victory for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has tried for years to bring an assault weapons ban to a full vote.

Anticipating the Environmental Affairs Committee decision earlier this week, the governor said, "It should have been done years ago."

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, the state's best-known gun control lobbying group, called the action historic.

"Just a few months ago, no one believed that an assault pistols ban could even be voted on in the Senate," he said.

Mr. DeMarco attributed yesterday's passage to grass-roots support for gun control, the increased popularity of the governor and the emergence of crime as a top issue.

Gun rights advocates vowed to do their best to kill the bill on the Senate floor.

Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said he and others will try to weigh the measure down with tough but politically unpalatable anti-crime amendments. One proposal would require a life sentence without parole for all gun-related crimes of violence -- including burglary.

"If people really want to get tough on crime, we're going to give them the opportunity," Mr. Baker said.

Ammunition curb

Proponents of the bill argue that the military-style weapons -- which typically carry 30 bullets or more -- have no place in Maryland. Gun rights advocates say that the pistols are linked to only a small percentage of crime and that banning their purchase won't make Maryland safer.

In addition to banning the pistols, the bill would ban the sale of ammunition magazines that carry more than 20 bullets and add 21 military-style weapons to the state list of guns that require purchasers to wait seven days and undergo a criminal background check to buy a weapon.

With crime among the top issues in Annapolis this year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. routed the bill to the more liberal Environmental Affairs Committee to ensure a floor vote.

Maneuver opposed

Critics attacked Mr. Miller for circumventing the legislature's committee system, while gun control advocates called it a blow for democracy.

Some went both ways. Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Baltimore Democrat and gubernatorial candidate, voted against the bill in committee but said he would support it on the floor. He called his committee vote a protest against Mr. Miller's bending of the rules.

While this measure draws political lightning, the toughest parts of the governor's gun control package appear headed for defeat. Those measures include licensing handgun buyers, regulating private handgun sales and limiting purchases to one handgun per person per month.

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