Va. gun law may be guide for Maryland Trafficking declined 1-buy-a-month limit began in 1993

Glendening bill is similar

Senate panel to open debate tomorrow, House on Wednesday

March 11, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

As the debate opens in Annapolis this week on the governor's proposal to limit handgun purchases, Maryland legislators might look for guidance to Virginia -- where officials praise a similar measure for reducing gun trafficking.

Since that law took effect in 1993, the percentage of handguns from Virginia linked to crimes in northeastern states has dropped significantly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

And Virginia's crime commission recently concluded that the law has reduced gun running in the state without burdening law-abiding gun buyers.

"It appears pretty clear that Virginia is not the source for weaponry that it was three years back," said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who chaired the crime commission study. Meanwhile, "the effect on the legitimate gun buyer is virtually nil," he said.

Limiting handgun purchases is a cornerstone of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun control bill, which is set for public hearings in the Maryland legislature tomorrow and Wednesday.

As in Virginia, the Maryland bill would limit an individual to buying one handgun per month from commercial dealers. It also would require buyers to complete a firearms safety course and apply for a handgun license.

In addition, those purchasing handguns privately would have to undergo a criminal background check, which Maryland law does not currently require.

The one-a-month limit is designed to prevent "straw" purchases in which people buy handguns in bulk and then provide them to criminals. If the General Assembly approves the measure, Maryland would become only the third state in the nation, behind Virginia and South Carolina, to limit handgun sales.

But the governor is in for a battle in the legislature. Pro-gun lawmakers on a key Senate committee say they have enough votes to kill the bill.

Gun rights advocates argue that such purchase limits would not stop criminals from obtaining firearms and would merely inconvenience legitimate gun owners.

"I think one-gun-a-month is nothing more than a slick marketing phrase and a rationing of rights," said Richard C. Thompson, legislative director of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association. "I don't think someone who is willing to shoot another person on the street is going to be intimidated by a one-gun-a-month law."

As recently as three years ago, federal authorities viewed Virginia as a haven for gun runners. People would drive down Interstate 95 from New York City for the day, sweep through gun shops in Northern Virginia and return with a trunk full of cheap handguns for criminals, ATF officials say.

Embarrassed by Virginia's notoriety, state legislators passed the one-gun-a-month bill, which took effect in July 1993. The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence recently completed a study of its impact.

The center looked at ATF data on guns linked to crime in the Northeast corridor that came from the Southeast, the region's principal supplier. Before the one-a-month law, Virginia accounted for 35 percent of the guns, the Washington-based gun control organization found. After the law's enactment, Virginia's share dropped to 16 percent.

"We're not making the trafficking cases in Virginia we used to make," said ATF Special Agent John Limbach. "You've got to be a lot more resourceful to get around the one-gun-a-month law."

Some have found ways.

Last month, a federal grand jury indicted 18 people involved in an alleged gun ring in Norfolk, Va. Federal authorities claim members of the Norfolk State University marching band bought one handgun each month from Virginia stores and then resold at least 80 of the weapons in Washington.

Gun rights advocates say the case shows the ineffectiveness of Virginia's law. John H. Josselyn, an official with the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, argues that purchase limits actually make it harder to identify gun rings.

Under federal law, gun dealers must notify the ATF if someone buys more than one gun within a week. By using large numbers of people to purchase weapons, though, gun rings can avoid detection and circumvent the limit law, Mr. Josselyn said.

"Here is a bunch of college students who have learned how to beat the system," he said. "The bottom line is it will be a minor inconvenience for the gun runner."

Instead of stopping gun runners, Mr. Josselyn said, the law will just be a nuisance to collectors.

Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, insists the proposal wouldn't affect most legitimate gun buyers. In 1994, only 71 people bought more than nine handguns each in Maryland, according to state police. Colonel Mitchell added that the governor plans to make some accommodations for gun collectors.

In Virginia, people who want to buy more than one gun a month can apply to the state police and submit to an enhanced criminal background check. Since the law's enactment, the state has denied only 67 applications out of 830, according to Virginia officials.

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