THIS YEAR, crime is a big issue in the Maryland General Assembly. It has been so every year for the past eight years.
In his State of the State speech, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said that the legislature needed to pass some new gun laws to "get the guns off the street." He wants to make it more difficult to buy guns by requiring licenses for purchasers and limiting the number of guns they can buy.
Perhaps our governor does not know that it is already against the law to carry a gun on the street, unless one has a difficult-to-get permit from the state police. No new laws are necessary to "get the guns off the street." If our police would simply enforce the laws now on the books they could make a big dent in the problem. But they either won't -- or can't.
Some police administrators have said they cannot just stop people and search them, and in most cases that is true. But guns are different. Maryland law permits any police officer to stop and frisk any person who is suspected of carrying a gun.
Anti-gun groups say the governor's licensing proposal will stop criminals from buying guns by requiring a background check before a gun purchase is authorized.
But such a law is already on the books. Maryland has required a seven-day waiting period and state police background check for handgun sales since 1966. In 1989, this seven-day waiting period and state police background check was extended to include so-called "assault weapons" as well as handguns. The state police are very thorough in their checking procedures. So thorough that gun purchases by honest people are sometimes delayed or denied.
Perhaps the most onerous aspect of the governor's licensing proposal is that it will apply only to honest people. To a person who does not understand constitutional law, making gun owners get a license might seem like a perfect way to keep criminals from getting guns. But it won't stop a single criminal from getting a gun or keeping it once he has it. Because of a Supreme Court decision in a case called Haynes v. United States, criminals are exempt from having to obey such a law because doing so violates their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
On the surface, the Haynes decision seems absolutely crazy, but the legal logic behind it is impeccable. Federal and state laws forbid convicted criminals to possess any firearm of any type -- even hunting rifles or shotguns. Because making them license and register their guns will require them to admit that they have a gun in their possession, criminals would be forced to admit that they were violating the law. Therefore, a criminal cannot be prosecuted for possession of an unlicensed or unregistered gun and any licensing and registration scheme the governor can devise can only be used against honest, law-abiding citizens.
To hear the proponents of the governor's bill talk, one would think that there was no law to prevent a law-abiding citizen from buying a gun and then re-selling it to a criminal. But that is also false. It is already against state and federal laws for anyone to sell a gun to a convicted criminal. It is also against the law to sell a handgun to anyone who is under 21; who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or who is addicted to or an habitual user of drugs or alcohol; who has ever been committed to a mental hospital; who has been dishonorably discharged from military service; or who is an alien, illegally in this country. These laws do zTC not only apply to gun dealers; they apply to private citizens as well.
Unfortunately, Maryland's current governor is following in his predecessor's footsteps and attacking law-abiding citizens who own guns for sporting purposes or for protection, instead of doing something about implementing enforcement -- the real solution to the crime problem. The tactic is more than logically incorrect; it is morally and ethically wrong.
To be sure, Baltimore City and Prince George's County have a horrible problem with gun violence. But the farmer in Cumberland who keeps a handgun around to shoot rats in the barn is not in any way responsible for the actions of a drug dealer in Baltimore City who shoots a rival drug dealer for infringing on his territory. The two gun owners have never met; nor will they ever meet.
The world-class pistol competitor who lives in Montgomery County and owns 10 target pistols has no connection whatsoever to the teen-age gang member in Prince George's County who shoots another teen-ager to get his sports jacket.
The shoreman in Easton who likes to hunt deer with a handgun (yes, it is legal) is not to blame if a Baltimore County child dies from a stray bullet in a gun battle between a criminal and the police.
Putting additional restrictions on law-abiding citizens will not do anything to solve the crime problem. On the contrary, it will only help organized crime. Many criminals are in the business of selling things the government does not want you to have, and the harder it to obtain a gun legally, the more business the criminals will do on the black market.
No one wants criminals to have guns -- least of all law-abiding gun owners. People who participate in gun sports obey the laws of this state. That is why we fight so hard about what the laws will be. If we did not intend to obey the laws, we would not care what they were. Criminals, on the other hand, do not respect the laws and passing new laws will not make them change.
Before enacting any new laws, our legislators should demand an explanation of why the existing laws are not properly enforced.
Bob McMurray is the chairman of Maryland Committee Against
the Gun Ban.