Owners defend assault pistols as 'fun'

March 14, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Scott Shane contributed to this article.

To the patrons of Bob's Coins & Guns in Annapolis, banning the sale of so-called assault pistols would be like prohibiting the purchase of sports cars.

George Councill, a regular customer, visited the shop last week and talked about his prized SP-89 semiautomatic pistol -- one of the 17 types the Maryland Senate will consider banning this week. Mr. Councill uses his for target practice and compares it to a high-performance coupe.

"It's fun," said Mr. Councill of the military-style weapon that allows him to spray beer cans with 15 bullets in as many seconds. "If you had a Porsche, what would you do?"

Three miles away in the State House, though, Gov. William Donald Schaefer sees these weapons in an entirely different light. To him, they are not high-tech toys, but guns of mass destruction.

The imposing, but easily concealable pistols typically can carry 30 rounds or more and fire them as fast as someone can pull the trigger. Some are designed to be fitted with silencers and bayonets; they range in price from $250 to $1,299. Maryland State Police say they are not used in competitive shooting, nor are they legal for hunting.

"They are manufactured to kill a large number of people in a short period of time," said 1st Sgt. Bernard Shaw, who oversees firearms registration for the state police.

Despite their notoriety, however, these weapons appear to be linked to only a small percentage of crime. Federal records are spotty, but between 1991 and 1992, only one of the pistols the governor wants to ban -- the TEC-9 -- was among the top 10 firearms traced to crime by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Between 1988 and 1993, assault pistols accounted for 252 -- or 1.4 percent -- of the 18,230 firearms collected by the Baltimore City Police Department. Nearly all the weapons were confiscated in connection with crimes.

Gun rights proponents point toward the numbers to show that banning such weapons won't have any effect.

Gun control advocates counter that while assault pistols are not routinely used in shootings, police are collecting more and more of them. In 1988, Baltimore police collected 11 assault pistols. Last year, the number was 67.

Baltimore City Police Officer Ed Bochniak notes that some of the weapons that would be banned have become popular among drug dealers in the city's Eastern District, where he has investigated shootings since 1991.

Last fall, a TEC-9 was involved in a shooting in which a mother and her 6-month-old child were caught in cross-fire in East Baltimore, Officer Bochniak recalled.

Perhaps the best-known recent case occurred during the robbery of a small Randallstown bank in 1992. A man armed with a MAC-10 semiautomatic pistol that held a 30-round bullet clip killed two female bank employees and seriously wounded two others.

"I can never understand . . . how a person wouldn't ban an assault pistol from the streets of Baltimore," Governor Schaefer said at a recent news conference.

Filibuster threatened

This week, the Maryland Senate is expected to take a stand on the issue for the first time. The debate, which could begin as early as tonight, will pit rural and some conservative suburban legislators against many of their urban counterparts. Opponents a ban are threatening a filibuster.

The governor has tried to bring an assault weapons ban to a vote of the full General Assembly for several years. The conservative Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, however, routinely killed such measures. This year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. circumvented the committee and pushed the bill onto the Senate floor.

In addition to the semiautomatic pistol ban, the bill being considered this week contains two other pieces of the governor's gun control agenda. It would forbid the sale and possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 20 bullets. The bill would also add 21 other military-style weapons to a state list that requires purchasers to wait seven days and undergo a criminal background check before they receive them.

Despite the attention the bill has drawn, it does not contain the toughest parts of the governor's gun control agenda. They would require handgun owners to be licensed and would limit purchases to one handgun per person per month.

While those proposals could be amended onto the bill on the Senate floor, such a move seems unlikely as they are especially controversial among legislators. Even supporters don't expect them to pass this year.

Perhaps the strongest of the apparently doomed measures is one that would require private citizens who sell guns to one another to do so only with state police approval. Proponents have said it could prevent people from buying guns from licensed dealers and then selling them to criminals.

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