Md. House clears way for assault pistol ban

April 01, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Responding to public outcry over handgun violence, the House of Delegates gave final legislative approval yesterday to a bill banning the sale of assault pistols -- virtually assuring that Maryland will become the fifth state to outlaw certain military-style weapons.

Delegates voted 81-60 to pass the bill, giving Gov. William Donald Schaefer a long-sought victory in the waning days of his final legislative session. Mr. Schaefer, who has struggled for an assault weapons ban since 1991, plans to sign the bill into law in May.

"This is a great day for the citizens of Maryland," Mr. Schaefer said in a statement. "Opponents sometimes cast this issue as an assault on their rights; today, I say we stood up for our citizens' rights to a safer life."

For gun rights advocates, the bill's passage marks the first major defeat in the Maryland General Assembly since 1988, when the legislature passed a ban on "Saturday Night Specials."

"Any gun ban is a serious loss," said Robert A. McMurray, spokesman for the Maryland State Rifle & Pistol Association. "We're bleeding."

But he and other gun rights advocates vowed to overturn the new ban in federal court on constitutional grounds. "We're going to embarrass this entire legislature," Mr. McMurray declared.

Buoyed by their victory, gun control advocates dared him to try. Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, pointed out that such lawsuits have failed in the past.

California, New Jersey, Connecticut and Hawaii have enacted similar assault weapons bans. None has been overturned, he said.

The bill passed yesterday would ban the sale or transfer of 18 types of semiautomatic pistols. They are often called assault pistols because of their military look and their ability to carry 30 rounds of ammunition or more. Scores of other types of semiautomatic pistols would not be affected.

Mr. DeMarco said the bill would help avert mass public slayings but cautioned citizens not to expect too much.

The measure will "prevent terrorist attacks . . . in school yards," he said. "The day-to-day shootings must be dealt with by comprehensive handgun licensing and a civil liability scheme, which we will get enacted next year."

Indeed, while the assault pistol ban is a big victory for gun control advocates, it falls far short of the tougher gun proposals in this year's legislature. They include regulating the sale of handguns by private individuals -- a giant loophole through which criminals routinely obtain weapons -- and limiting the sale of handguns to one per person per month. None of those measures is expected to pass this year.

Gun control opponents point out that assault pistols represent only a tiny percentage of weapons linked to crime, arguing that a ban is symbolic at best.

Said Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Baltimore County Republican and gubernatorial candidate: "The sad thing is we're going to go home and tell our constituents we did something, and we've done absolutely nothing."

Precarious passage

The bill's passage through the House yesterday was more precarious than the 21-vote final margin might suggest. Opponents tried nine times to amend the measure. Any change in the bill would have sent it back for final approval in the Senate, where a late-session filibuster could have killed it.

In a year during which crime has been a top issue in the legislature, gun rights advocates tried to kill the measure with tough sentencing provisions. Del. Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat, offered an amendment that would have required a 25-year sentence without parole for anyone using an assault pistol in a crime.

He nearly succeeded. The amendment failed by a vote of 66-67. Opponents continued to offer amendments for at least another hour but never came as close and eventually gave up.

In one of the more interesting exchanges, legislators invoked the name of a 10-year-old Baltimore boy slain in a drive-by shooting to argue opposite sides of the issue. Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, reminded delegates of young Tauris Johnson, who was cut down by a drug dealer's gun in November.

"These are things that we as legislators have to deal with inside the Beltways," said Delegate Anderson. "It is the lives of our children [that] are at stake."

Delegate Sauerbrey noted that Tauris' accused killer was out on parole.

"Tauris Johnson was killed because this body has refused to get tough on criminals who use the guns," she said.

Legislators on both sides of the issue promised to put gun control on the ballot this fall. "Anybody who voted against banning assault weapons has a lot of explaining to do," Mr. DeMarco said.

Taylor's vote

A noteworthy vote yesterday came from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. Mr. Taylor is a longtime supporter of the governor. As recently as last week, he said that he favored an assault pistol ban.

Yesterday, though, he voted against it.

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