Theories abound on Baker's about-face Senator's support of limits on purchases of guns stuns many

January 22, 1996|By Frank Langfitt DTC | Frank Langfitt DTC,SUN STAFF

What has gotten into Walter?

That was The Question in the Maryland General Assembly last week after Sen. Walter M. Baker -- the legislature's most powerful gun rights advocate -- said he could support restricting handgun sales.

After 10 years ruling a committee that has snuffed out gun control bills like so many candles, Mr. Baker seemed to embrace the same kinds of proposals he had once fought so fiercely. To many of his colleagues, it was like Jesse Helms supporting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

"I almost got indigestion," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a gun rights defender from Anne Arundel County and fellow Democrat who has worked with Mr. Baker on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for nine years. "It's totally out of character for Walter to do that."

Mr. Baker surprised fellow lawmakers Wednesday by saying he could support limiting handgun purchases to one or two per person per month and requiring criminal background checks for private handgun sales. The two measures are part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun control package for the 1996 General Assembly session, which opened Jan. 10.

In the State House, where people look for intrigue even in the most innocuous statements, theories abounded on Mr. Baker's stance. Some wondered if the governor had offered the Cecil County legislator a judgeship. Others thought Mr. Baker might have pledged his support in exchange for the governor's help on other legislation.

Ultimately, most political observers acknowledged they were baffled. In an interview last week, the senator denied that his position was tied to any deal.

"There is nothing that I want," said Mr. Baker, 68. "I don't want any roads built in my district. I don't want any buildings built."

Mr. Baker noted that by the time he finishes his Senate term, he will be 71 -- a year past the retirement age for Maryland judges.

While many in the legislature saw Mr. Baker's support of gun control as a 180-degree turn, the senator insisted he hadn't changed at all. Mr. Baker said that as committee chairman, he usually has refused to approve gun control bills for fear that they would be amended on the Senate floor to include measures he opposed.

In 1994, his committee killed a Schaefer administration bill that called for limiting handgun sales to one a month. If the panel

hadn't, Mr. Baker said, gun control advocates would have tried to amend the measure to include an assault pistol ban.

"As everyone knows, I didn't let any gun bills out on the floor because I didn't have an agreement with the governor," he said.

This year, Mr. Baker said he can support limiting commercial and private handgun purchases as long as Mr. Glendening pledges to veto the bill if it is amended.

The governor has proposed a broad gun control agenda which, if enacted, would make Maryland laws among the toughest in the nation. Mr. Glendening wants to license people who buy handguns and require that they pass a gun safety test. He also wants the state's gun laws to apply to sales between private individuals.

Mr. Baker opposes licensing as government intrusion. But he said he can support making it a crime for handgun owners to sell to people who haven't had a recent criminal background check. He said he was persuaded in part by state police research that linked many handguns used in crime to private sales.

The governor wants to limit handgun purchases to one a month to stem the flow of firearms to criminals. Mr. Baker said he could support the concept because it would not hurt the average gun owner.

"I don't think there is anybody who needs to buy a dozen guns every month," he said.

In years past, Mr. Baker has cited his libertarian philosophy for much of his opposition to gun control: less government is better government. As homicides continued to rise in Maryland's urban areas, gun-control supporters criticized him as hopelessly behind the times.

Mr. Baker has weathered the barrage without bending, earning the respect of many lawmakers. Last week, he insisted that criticism had not influenced his decision to back gun control this year, but then seemed to indicate it might have played some role.

"My philosophy is very simple: Limiting the sales of handguns to law-abiding citizens is not going to do a thing to fight crime," he said. "Why am I doing it now? Well, maybe I'm pacifying some people and they'll get off the issue and go on to other things."

Whether Mr. Baker's vote will be enough to propel a gun control bill out of his committee is an open question. By most counts, six members of the 11-member panel oppose gun control, and Mr. Baker said he will not try to sway them.

General Assembly hearing schedule

To receive by fax a copy of the Maryland General Assembly hearing schedule for the week, dial Sunfax at (410) 332-6123. Enter the four-digit information number 5959.

To receive the schedule each week automatically, call Laura Barnhardt at (410) 332-6893.

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