Gun rights lawmaker reverses position Baker reverses position, backs handgun controls

January 18, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

In a surprise turnaround that boosts the prospects for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun control proposal, the legislature's most powerful gun rights advocate said yesterday he supports limiting handgun sales in Maryland.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, who chairs a key Senate committee that routinely kills gun control bills, said he could support limiting commercial handgun sales to one or two per person a month as well as restrictions on private sales.

"I have no problem with that," the conservative Eastern Shore Democrat said of limiting handgun sales, a proposal designed to reduce the flow of illegal firearms to criminals.

"We do have to stop secondary purchases," continued Mr. Baker, who likened the problem of private sales to criminals to that of adults buying alcohol for juveniles. "I don't believe we should permit anyone to sell to a person who's not had a [criminal] background check."

The governor has a broad gun control agenda for the 1996 General Assembly session that would give Maryland one of the toughest laws in the nation. In addition to limiting commercial handgun sales to individuals to one a month, Mr. Glendening wants a seven-day waiting period and criminal background check for private purchases. He also wants to license handgun owners and require them to pass a gun safety course.

Mr. Baker's comments surprised both gun control advocates and opponents, who predicted the senator's position would help Governor Glendening enact at least part of his gun control package.

"Wow! Wow!" said Vincent DeMarco, director of community outreach for Handgun Control, a national lobby group. "Clearly, any gun control measure supported by Senator Walter Baker has a very good chance of becoming law."

Gun rights advocate Bob McMurray, chairman of the Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban, went even further.

"Walter Baker is the strongest defender we have in Annapolis and if he has decided that he is going to let those things go through, they will," said a disappointed Mr. McMurray.

While some suggested that Mr. Baker's approval was tantamount to passage in the General Assembly, not everyone in Annapolis was convinced.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. noted that even with Mr. Baker's support, the governor's package still does not have enough votes in Mr. Baker's Judicial Proceedings Committee to pass right now.

Although Mr. Baker supports two elements of the governor's agenda, he disagrees with him on how to achieve one of them. Mr. Glendening wants the state police to regulate private handgun sales. Mr. Baker prefers putting the onus on the seller, making it a crime to sell a handgun to someone who has not passed a criminal background check.

Mr. Baker opposes other measures the governor supports, especially licensing, which the senator called "un-American."

"We're not going to license people to purchase a weapon," he said. "I don't want to have a license to breathe or do what I need to do to protect myself."

Still, Mr. Glendening said he was pleased with Mr. Baker's support and indicated willingness to compromise.

"I'm not interested in the path we take, I'm interested in the destination," the governor said. "I think we're going to work this out."

Mr. Baker, who is from rural Cecil County, has a strong libertarian streak and has opposed most gun control measures as an infringement on the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners.

He has likened plans to license gun owners to a similar law instituted in Nazi Germany to disarm government opponents.

For years, Mr. Baker's committee has served as a black hole for most gun control legislation. His power and influence on the issue have been so great that in 1994, Mr. Miller took the highly unusual step of sending an assault weapon ban bill to another committee to keep it from being killed.

It was not entirely clear yesterday why Mr. Baker had changed his position. The senator simply said limiting commercial and private sales made sense.

"He's not afraid of casting a tough vote," said Mr. Miller, a longtime friend. "On this issue, which would be very difficult to explain to his rural constituency, I believe that he feels he can make them understand why these changes in the law are necessary.

"He doesn't have any constituents who buy more than one handgun a month."

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