Gun control advocates to rally against Ehrlich's firearms stance

Group hopes his record will be issue during race

May 23, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Gun control advocates are hoping to make Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s record on firearms legislation a key issue in the governor's race, beginning with a rally today outside his campaign headquarters.

Members of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and others say that Ehrlich, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, has acted much like a spokesman for the National Rifle Association with his longtime opposition to tougher gun laws.

They point to his vote as a state delegate against a bill to ban Saturday-night specials, and a later vote in Congress to repeal a national assault weapons ban.

"He's not at all about preventing gun crime," said Ginni Wolf, executive director of MAHA and an organizer of today's rally. "His stance is the NRA stance."

But Ehrlich says he and such critics have a philosophical disagreement on how to address gun violence. While gun control advocates want more restrictions on gun use, he says he wants to punish the illegal use of guns.

"My focus has always been on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals," Ehrlich said. "We all want the same thing. How we get there is very different. They simply don't like guns."

Democrats hope his position will hurt him in the governor's race because polls have shown that most Marylanders favor tougher gun laws. Gun control will likely be debated in a campaign in which Ehrlich and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have sharply differing views.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Townsend, declined to make the lieutenant governor available for comment for this article, saying she was not associated with today's rally. But he said she strongly supports Maryland's ban on Saturday-night specials and the state and federal bans on assault weapons.

As part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration, Townsend has been a vocal advocate for gun control as a prevention tool. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1, that position has been well received.

"Maryland with its progressive tendencies must be considered one of the most pro-gun control states in the country," said pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. "The NRA is not a well-liked organization in Maryland."

Wolf and other gun control advocates want to publicize Ehrlich's record. Three weeks ago, they sent him a letter asking him to state his current position on gun control and to renounce his support of the NRA.

The letter criticized his 1988 vote in the General Assembly against legislation that banned handguns collectively known as Saturday-night specials or "junk guns" -- names for small, inexpensive handguns of low quality.

Banning such guns helped prevent 40 homicides a year from 1990 to 1998, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Wolf and others also criticize Ehrlich for lobbying in 1994 against Maryland legislation that led to the state ban on assault-style weapons. And in 1996, he voted in favor of a bill that sought to repeal the federal ban on the sale, manufacture and possession of certain semiautomatic assault weapons.

"Bob Ehrlich is a pro-gun extremist," said Vincent DeMarco, a former executive director of MAHA.

In a two-page response to the letter questioning his gun record, Ehrlich said he has always opposed "the so-called `gun bans.'"

"Frankly, they do little if anything to keep guns out of the hands of people determined to harm and kill others," he wrote. Instead, Ehrlich said, he has emphasized responsible gun ownership, gun safety and restricting access to guns.

He said he supports encouraging the use of gun locks; conducting full background checks on all gun purchasers, including those at gun shows; banning the sale of high-capacity magazines; and restricting juveniles' access to guns.

Ehrlich said he wants Maryland to implement the "Project Exile" program, a federal initiative that denies bail and plea bargains to certain armed criminals and sentences them to mandatory prison terms. The program has won praise from gun control advocates and the NRA.

The lieutenant governor is taking a different tack. Townsend, who pushed for the Saturday-night-special ban as a gun control advocate and for tougher gun control laws in the Glendening administration, is focusing on restricting gun access. "Her first priority is the vigorous enforcement of those laws on the books," Morrill said.

Under the Glendening administration, Townsend was a vocal advocate of the 1996 legislation that limits handgun purchases in Maryland to one a person a month and the Responsible Gun Safety Act of 2000.

That law contains some of the nation's toughest gun provisions, including a requirement that manufacturers equip handguns with built-in trigger locks. It requires firearms makers to provide ballistic information about each handgun to state police to help them solve crimes.

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