The chairman of a key Maryland Senate committee yesterday accused the state police of conducting a "witch hunt" by telephoning people who have bought more than two handguns at a time. "I'm awfully disappointed in the Gestapo tactics," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which reviews gun control laws. "It's sad the state police are taking the stance they're about ownership of a gun."
Mr. Baker, a longtime gun control opponent, said he learned of the state police's Operation Maryland Cease Fire in an article published in The Sun on Sunday. Since summer, the five-member unit has phoned people who buy more than two handguns at a time to ask if they still have the weapons.
The program is designed to crack down on "straw-man" purchases -- when a handgun buyer, who must file an application form, buys a weapon for someone else.
State police spokesman Michael J. McKelvin said the phone calls are a "proactive step" to curb handgun violence.
"We're not creating files on anyone," Mr. McKelvin said. "We're not harassing anyone."
But some leading state legislators are split on whether the program infringes on the rights of gun owners.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat who had not heard about the program, said he sees no problem with the calls.
"The problem [of handgun violence] is very real, especially in urban areas," Mr. Miller said. "I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who want to purchase more than one handgun a month. They shouldn't complain about explaining their purchases."
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called the phone follow-ups good police work.
"I think [an officer] has a duty or responsibility to investigate whether something is going on," he said.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, said he is worried that the program focuses on handgun ownership instead of handgun violators. "I think we've always got to guard against the intrusion of government into people's lives."
Mr. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said the state police TTC program goes too far.
"I'm not opposed to reasonable regulation," he said. "But we make laws and the government takes a license with the laws we make."
Mr. Baker said news of the state police program makes him less sympathetic toward a new package of gun control laws Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed last week. The proposals -- which would give Maryland some of the stiffest gun laws in the nation -- would require buyers of handguns to be licensed and trained, and would limit handgun purchases to one a month.
"It's going to make me rethink the governor's gun control package," he added. "I'm not saying it's going to change my mind, but it reinforces my philosophy that government is punishing the people for owning a gun."
Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor, said he did not know whether Mr. Glendening was aware that state police are phoning handgun buyers. But in general, he added, the governor supports Operation Cease Fire.
As to whether the calls would have an impact on pending gun control laws, Mr. Feldmann said, "The governor believes this legislation will be decided on its own merits."