Delegates assure gun control bill will become law House passes limit of one per month

governor eager to sign

March 30, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates easily approved Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun control bill yesterday, assuring it will become law and giving the governor his second major victory of the 1996 legislative session.

Delegates voted 80-60 to pass the bill, which will limit handgun purchases in Maryland to one per person per month in an attempt to make it harder for criminals to obtain firearms in

quantity. Only South Carolina and Virginia have similar laws.

"This is a great victory for all Marylanders who want safe streets and safe communities," Mr. Glendening said afterward.

During a debate on the House floor that lasted more than 90 minutes, opponents argued the bill would do little to protect citizens and not enough to punish criminals.

"I'm afraid this bill is shallow," said Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican. "Unfortunately, it raises a false sense of security."

But supporters pointed to Virginia's one-gun-a-month law, which appears to have had some impact on gun running there. Since it was enacted in 1993, the percentage of handguns from Virginia linked to crime in northeastern states has dropped significantly, according to federal statistics.

With yesterday's House approval, final legislative passage of the Maryland bill is considered a formality. Once signed by the governor, the law is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.

The vote comes on the heels of another Glendening success. Last week, the legislature agreed to spend more than $270 million for two professional football stadiums the governor championed despite public opposition.

For a man who is sometimes seen as not having clear convictions, Mr. Glendening's success with the gun bill fulfills an important pledge from his 1994 campaign. The three jurisdictions that elected him -- Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- are regarded as strong supporters of gun control.

The issue has traditionally been one of the most divisive and hard-fought in the Maryland legislature. In 1994, the last year a gun bill was approved, the General Assembly narrowly passed an assault pistol ban after much rancor.

This year's legislation, however, passed with relative ease after a decidedly less passionate debate. Advocates on both sides of the issue saw several reasons for that.

While some gun owners saw the assault pistol ban as restricting their basic right to firearms, many regarded the one-a-month limit as less threatening.

Much of the opposition to gun laws in Maryland, as elsewhere, is based on a fear that the state will eventually ban all firearms. The 1994 assault pistol ban seemed to fuel those concerns -- even though most gun enthusiasts don't own such weapons. This year, though, it was harder to rally grass-roots opposition to a bill that some gun owners thought was reasonable.

John Schelin, who owns Schelin Guns in College Park, said that unlike past years, his customers didn't seem interested in the legislation. He put a stack of informational fliers on his counter opposing the bill, but employees had to urge patrons to read them.

"I think a lot of them are saying 'It doesn't affect me,' " said Mr. Schelin's mother, Louise, who also works at the store.

Gun rights proponents also had trouble formulating a message. In 1994, they pointed out, correctly, that assault pistols were used in a tiny percentage of crimes and the ban was unlikely to do much to curb violence.

But when Governor Glendening asked rhetorically this year why any honest citizen would need to buy more than 12 guns a year, opponents struggled to respond.

"We just don't have a good answer to that question," said Bob McMurray, a former official with the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association and a longtime gun rights advocate.

Politically, the pivotal moment for the bill came in January, when the legislature's most powerful gun control opponent, Sen. Walter M. Baker, said he could support the one-a-month limit.

Some speculated that the governor had offered the Cecil County Democrat something in exchange for his vote, but both denied making any deals.

The senator, whose Judicial Proceedings Committee has been a black hole for most gun control legislation, used his position as chairman to make sure the bill got to the Senate floor, where it passed last week, 30-16.

Gun control opponents, though, vow revenge at the ballot box in 1998.

Provisions of bill

The gun control bill sought by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and approved yesterday by the Maryland House of Delegates is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. The legislation will:

* Limit handgun purchases to one per person per month in an attempt to prevent criminals from obtaining firearms in quantity. It does not apply to shotguns or rifles. There are exceptions for collectors and large purchases from estate sales.

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