Ehrlich clarifies gun panel remark

Candidate says statement about board misconstrued

Townsend using his comments

Election 2002

September 18, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

As anti-gun advocates continued to characterize him as a pawn of the National Rifle Association, Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. clarified yesterday a statement he made about the state's Handgun Roster Board, contending that he never said he would seek to get rid of it.

On Friday, Ehrlich said he would "review" the state's gun control programs "to see what's working." The two he mentioned were the ballistic fingerprint program, in which state police keep track of shell casing data, and the Handgun Roster Board, which approves all handguns before they can be sold in Maryland.

"The Handgun Roster Board was sold as this really great idea," he said Friday. "I looked at it pretty recently and they were having problems getting folks on the panel and actually doing their jobs." He said state gun crime statistics led him to suspect these programs weren't working and might be a waste of state resources.

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign has run with the issue, calling Ehrlich an "ultra-conservative" who would try to undo Maryland's landmark gun-control laws - some of the strictest in the nation.

But in an interview yesterday, Ehrlich said Townsend was stretching his comments to her purpose. "I never advocated getting rid of the Roster Board, did I? She's claiming I said it," he said.

Instead, Ehrlich said he would evaluate any problems and try to fix them.

Yesterday, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse denounced Ehrlich's comments at a news conference, as did Democrats in Rockville. Today, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence plans to hold a news conference in Silver Spring.

The 11-member Handgun Roster Board, considered a major component of the state's gun policy, is part of a 1988 law that sought to ban cheaply made, easily concealed handguns known as Saturday night specials. Such guns were often used in street crimes.

Advocates say the law has worked, pointing to a Johns Hopkins University study that found it saved about 40 lives a year. Even if Ehrlich keeps the board in place, they worry he would appoint pro-gun members.

But Sanford Abrams of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association Inc. says the board has outlived its usefulness, since all the companies that once made "garbage guns" like Saturday night specials have closed.

The result, he says, is that criminals steal or illegally buy higher-caliber firearms, which are more deadly. "The effect is that people who now get shot, die," he said.

Since it began its work in 1990, the board has approved about 1,500 guns for sale, and banned 34 (not including assault weapons forbidden in Maryland), said a state police spokesman. The panel was formed after a bitter fight in November 1988, when opponents of the newly signed law - which then-Delegate Ehrlich voted against - forced the issue to referendum. Even then, he and Townsend were on opposite sides of the debate.

Pro-gun advocates spent $6.6 million on the referendum campaign - $6.1 million of which came from the NRA. The other side spent about $752,000 - and won. It marked the first time such an NRA-backed referendum had failed nationally.

But five months before the referendum, the bank account of the anti-gun forces was nearly empty. Vincent DeMarco, then-executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, sought help from Townsend, then working at the Department of Education.

She wrote a fund-raising letter that began with the scene of her father winning the California presidential primary in 1968: "But that night, as we celebrated the victory, a Middle-Eastern fanatic lifted a Saturday Night Special and shot my father dead."

"It was very moving for me," Townsend said yesterday. "It was the first time I'd ever really talked about how my father had died. I'd never said anything, written anything. It was a very sort of big leap for me, in a sense."

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