Unofficial election targets handguns

Takoma Park group to hold referendum on citywide ban

November 01, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

TAKOMA PARK -- The most closely watched vote in this city tomorrow might be the one taken on the sidewalk outside the polling place on a simple paper ballot supervised by unofficials.

Citizens Against Hand Guns says it will hold a mock election on a referendum to ban pistols and revolvers that was removed from the ballot last week by a Montgomery Circuit Court judge.

Almost 2,500 of Takoma Park's 7,411 registered voters signed petitions this summer to put the handgun question on the ballot. But Judge Vincent Ferretti Jr. ruled Wednesday that state law prohibits local governments from passing gun laws except under a handful of exceptions.

The leaders of the anti-gun group say their opponents waited until the last minute to launch a court challenge to frustrate the will of the people.

"They couldn't win at the ballot box, so they stopped the vote," says John Guernsey, who went door to door with the petition. "It would have won huge."

The Takoma Park vote occurs at a time when two of Maryland's top leaders have placed tougher gun laws at the top of their agendas, and gun control is expected to be one of the most hotly debated issues in the next session of the General Assembly.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to require "smart gun" technology on all new guns. That would prevent them from being fired by anyone but the owner.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has proposed a package of bills to restrict gun use, but says his ultimate goal is a ban on handguns.

Curran was at an anti-handgun rally in Takoma Park last week when Ferretti ruled.

"I was disappointed that the people of Takoma Park wouldn't get the chance to express an opinion," he said.

The attorney general says that while symbolic, the mock election is part of growing sentiment around the country.

"If the vote is significant, it sends a strong signal and gets the debate moving in a direction to stop this madness," he said.

In liberal Montgomery County, this city of 18,600 is more liberal still. It has, over the years, tried to outlaw cigarette vending machines and gas-powered lawn mowers, declared itself a nuclear-free zone and sanctioned only the most humane method of rat eradication.

But members of Citizens Against Hand Guns say that in the wake of the killings at Columbine High School, a Fort Worth, Texas, church and an Atlanta brokerage house, their cause is neither a liberal nor conservative issue.

"We want safer streets, safer schools, safer neighborhoods," said Betsy Taylor, a member of the group. "We've had enough."

Taylor said the group got tired of waiting for politicians "paralyzed by the National Rifle Association" to act, so it began its petition drive shortly after the Columbine shootings.

"In retrospect, we could have worded our referendum in such a way to perhaps withstand the court challenge," she said. "But we're trying to get a law that takes it as far as we can go."

Takoma Park City Council member Larry Rubin -- who is running unopposed tomorrow -- said he will begin drafting a bill to ban handguns that does not conflict with state law.

Curran said the hurdle is not insurmountable. "It may not be as broad as they would like, but they'll be able to do something."

Tom Mooney, a lawyer for Citizens Against Hand Guns, said the state allows jurisdictions to enact gun laws that protect children and keep guns away from places of public assembly, such as schools and parks.

"If public places include sidewalks, then you can effectively ban handguns in Takoma Park," Mooney said.

The anti-gun group has enlisted the support of Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor and Takoma Park resident who helped draft the District of Columbia's handgun ban.

Raskin said a strong vote of support at the mock election will send a message to the mayor and six-member City Council "to draft the most expansive, aggressive anti-handgun measure they can."

Takoma Park officials worry that a strong law will bring a lawsuit from the NRA that could deplete the city treasury.

That threat doesn't worry Guernsey.

"It would take $50,000 to $100,000 to fight," he said. "This is an affluent community. We can afford to fight for what's right."

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