Proposed bills would tighten Maryland gun control measures

Ban on assault weapons, more ballistic fingerprints

February 07, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Gun control advocates pressed yesterday for new measures that would ban assault-style weapons, expand ballistic fingerprinting and require immediate reporting of lost or stolen handguns - and their efforts picked up tentative support from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

With Montgomery County police Chief Charles A. Moose and the mother of slain sniper victim Conrad Johnson appearing yesterday at an Annapolis news conference in support of the bills, gun control immediately emerged as one of the prominent issues of the General Assembly session.

Ehrlich, a longtime opponent of restrictions on legally owned guns, said he would consider ballistic fingerprinting if it can be proven beneficial to law enforcement. His new state police superintendent, Col. Edward T. Norris, expressed support for another of the proposed measures.

Even so, gun enthusiasts are lining up in opposition to all of the gun control measures, criticizing them as more unnecessary regulations that will not reduce crime.

"We do indeed have a tough battle ahead of us," said Lillian Nolan, president of the Montgomery County chapter of the Million Mom March, during the news conference outside the State House, with a handful of protesters nearby. "Our opponents are actively organizing against us right now."

Moose said new laws are needed to curb gun violence in Maryland. He said the measures would help officers track weapons used in crimes while clearing the streets of high-powered guns designed primarily to hurt people.

"Gun violence continues to a problem in the state of Maryland," Moose said. "I understand these bills will not solve all law enforcement problems, ... but it will help."

During recent General Assembly sessions, gun control advocates have sought tougher laws to get weapons out of the hands of criminals. Measures enacted under the Glendening administration have given Maryland among the nation's toughest gun laws, including requirements that pistols be sold with trigger locks and that purchasers take a safety course.

While Ehrlich said he would consider the value of a ballistic fingerprinting program, he is unlikely to back measures eliminating assault-type weapons or to require mandatory reporting of missing guns because he believes they are political issues rather than a solution to gun violence.

Ehrlich favors Project Exile - a program developed in Richmond, Va., that gives mandatory prison time for gun crimes - as his crime-fighting tool.

"I want to put resources, additional dollars, into programs that work," Ehrlich said. He said he has told the state police chief to review the gun bills.

Norris said he has not seen the legislation but generally supports ballistic fingerprinting and believes that reporting of lost or stolen guns could help in crime investigations. He said he needs to review the assault weapon issue.

The bills announced yesterday would expand upon the federal law that bans some assault-type weapons to include any such gun in Maryland.

A second measure seeks to expand so-called ballistic fingerprinting or ballistic imaging to include rifles and shotguns along with handguns, for which law enforcement already conducts such tests. With ballistic imaging, the unique markings made by each gun on a bullet are recorded before a weapon is sold to help police trace a weapon used in a crime.

The third proposal would require owners to report the loss or theft of a handgun within 48 hours after it is determined to be missing.

Gun control advocates say the measures are the next steps that Maryland must take in its fight against violent crime.

Sonia Wills, mother of Conrad Johnson, the Montgomery County bus driver who was the last victim in the Washington-area sniper case, said it made her angry that she and others had to stand out in the cold to convince "elected officials that sensible regulation of firearms is a good idea."

"I am here today because I am outraged," Wills said. "Last fall, the world lost a pillar of our community, my devoted son, Conrad. Hundreds of Marylanders depended on him every day. He left behind a wife, two wonderful sons."

Though her statements moved some people in the crowd gathered on Lawyers Mall, others said that more gun regulation would not prevent the kind of tragedy that befell her son and others during the sniper killings last fall.

At times yesterday, protesters shouted at the gun control advocates and waved placards with such statements as "Lazy INS Releasing Criminals from Jail, FBI Testing will be Costly and Fail!"

Gun enthusiasts said the bills and the appearance of Moose at the news conference were part of a political ploy to restrict access to legal firearms by law-abiding citizens.

"Anti-gun proposals aimed at restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens have never had a record of decreasing crimes," said Kelly Whitley, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association.

Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association Inc., said two California studies last year proved that ballistic imaging is unreliable. He pointed out that the assault-type weapon used in the sniper incidents was stolen from Washington state, and that a ban in Maryland would not have prevented those crimes.

"How would the assault weapon ban have affected a man who stole a gun 3,000 miles away? None!" Abrams said.

"None of these three measures will solve a single crime in the state of Maryland," he said. "It's just more posturing."

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