Gun bill OK'd by Assembly lacks firepower

April 03, 1994|By John W. Frece and Frank Langfitt | John W. Frece and Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writers

To prove to the public that they, too, are worried about violent crime in this election year, Maryland lawmakers last week voted to ban the sale of military-style assault pistols.

It wasn't easy.

They had to bend their own rules just to get the issue considered. They had to abandon far tougher measures in a trade for the votes needed to get anything passed.

Even then, they only narrowly avoided a contentious Senate filibuster, and by the thinnest of margins had to repeatedly stave off attempts in both houses to kill the bill.

And when they finally were through and the legislation was headed to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's desk for signature, many lawmakers -- supporters and opponents alike -- candidly reached the same sad conclusion: What they had done was unlikely to do much to make Maryland safer.

The General Assembly had banned the sale or transfer in Maryland of 18 types of semiautomatic pistols that -- despite their great capacity to kill -- are linked only to a tiny percentage of crime.

Legislators also had banned the sale of ammunition magazines that carry more than 20 rounds, and they added 21 types of shotguns and rifles to a list requiring a seven-day waiting period and background check before purchase.

Untouched, though, were hundreds of models of handguns that may be sold legally in Maryland. Some of this year's toughest gun control measures -- which would have addressed those weapons -- were left languishing in committee.

They included provisions to regulate private handgun sales, a large loophole through which criminals often obtain firearms. Another measure designed to cut down on gun-running would have limited commercial sales to one handgun per person per month.

Why, at a time when national and state public opinion polls show that the majority of people want tougher gun control laws, was the legislature unable to do more?

The question made Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. laugh.

"Do you realize how difficult it is to do what we did?" the Prince George's County Democrat asked. "We jumped through hoops, we did back flips, and still came within a vote or two of losing it."

Mr. Miller called it "hogwash" for anyone to think the bill was insignificant, but conceded, "It is probably true the bill is not going to eliminate crime. But it sends a message that we care, that we empathize."

Many legislators simply hate the notion of gun control. For some, the right to bear arms is as personal a belief as their views on abortion.

Gun control is an issue that splits legislators along urban and rural lines, with most swing votes coming from the suburbs. The more drastic the gun control measures, the more suburban lawmakers defect to the side of the rural conservatives.

Urban and rural lawmakers come from different worlds, often viewing firearms in an entirely different light. For many rural legislators who grew up hunting and target shooting, guns were as much a part of recreational life as a baseball mitt.

Urban lawmakers, on the other hand, live in areas where random crime is often a risk and firearms are frequently the tools of thugs.

Sens. Ralph M. Hughes and Walter M. Baker illustrate the cultural gap. Both have been threatened by violent crime and have drawn different conclusions.

Mr. Hughes is a Baltimore Democrat who supports stringent gun control, including the licensing of handgun buyers. His father, a police officer, was shot by criminals while working undercover in 1964.

As a young law student, Mr. Hughes was robbed at gunpoint. At times, he has been stunned by the ignorance his rural colleagues have displayed about the massive firepower on city streets.

"I wonder where they live," Mr. Hughes said. "I wonder what news they look at."

Mr. Baker, also a Democrat, grew up in rural Cecil County, where his father was a farmer. He has a strong libertarian streak and has worked as a prosecutor.

"I learned to shoot a gun when I was 10 years old," he said. "If we wanted meat on the table, we had to go out and shoot rabbits or squirrels or ducks or quails."

As chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, he led the effort to kill the governor's three previous proposals to ban assault weapons. The day after a mugger stole his wife's purse in 1992, he told the governor the legislation was dead that year.

Even though he acknowledges that society has no need for such weapons, Mr. Baker strongly supports the right to own them. Unlike Baltimore, which had 353 homicides last year, Cecil County has few killings. Said Mr. Baker: "I've always seen guns used for legal purposes, not illegal purposes."

Even in jurisdictions where lawmakers believe most of their constituents favor gun control, they often are reluctant to act because they fear a galvanized minority might overwhelm a passive majority come the next election.

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