They may battle soon for the right to challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but yesterday Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan were united in support of a proposed state assault weapons ban they say will make streets safer.
O'Malley and Duncan participated separately in news conferences - held hours and miles apart - to lend their voices to a Maryland effort to restrict sales of military-style semiautomatic weapons. A federal ban of the weapons is scheduled to expire in a year, making a state replacement imperative, supporters say.
For some, the back-to-back events seemed to launch the election cycle for 2006, when both Duncan and O'Malley are expected to seek higher office - possibly taking on Ehrlich.
"I would say this is the beginning of their gubernatorial campaigns," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.
Added House Speaker Michael E. Busch: "It's the beginning of two contenders. Thank God. I'm all for it."
Democrats have repeatedly tried to attack Ehrlich on his gun record, with little success. As a congressman, Ehrlich voted in 1996 to repeal the federal ban on assault weapons. Last year, during the height of the Washington-area sniper shootings, Ehrlich told reporters he would revisit the state's restrictive gun laws to determine their effectiveness.
An Ehrlich veto threat doomed a similar assault weapons bill this year.
Nonetheless, two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola of Montgomery County and Del. Neil F. Quinter of Howard County, said yesterday they will introduce legislation next year to ban the sale of assault rifles.
State lawmakers need to act, they said, because a nine-year-old federal ban is scheduled to expire, and a Republican-controlled Congress appears unlikely to renew it.
"One year from today, assault weapons will be back on the street," Garagiola said.
Ehrlich was noncommittal about the idea, saying neither he nor his aides have given much thought to the bill. The governor repeated an earlier pledge to consult with law enforcement officers before making a decision on gun bills.
"Our focus is on illegal guns on the street today," he said.
O'Malley, who won the Democratic primary in his bid for a second mayoral term last week and faces only token general election opposition, dismissed any thought that his support of the proposal had future political significance.
He declined to say whether he thought Ehrlich would sign the bill if the General Assembly passed it, and refused to speculate whether gun issues would be a dominant issue during the 2006 elections, when Ehrlich will seek re-election.
"That's up to you in the press to determine what is a political issue," O'Malley said. "My primary concern is about public safety and the present."
O'Malley and Duncan have witnessed up-close the damage wrought by high-powered military-style weapons in the hands of criminals.
O'Malley has banked his future on making Baltimore safer. "The amount of carnage that is still on our streets is still too great," the mayor said yesterday.
Duncan gained national attention during last fall's sniper shootings. The weapon recovered from the suspects was a Bushmaster AR-15, a civilian version of the M-16 that can be sold because some of its features were altered enough to circumvent the federal law, he said.
The latest state proposal, Duncan said, would prohibit the sale of the Bushmaster and other so-called "copycat" weapons because it would be more stringent in some respects than the federal law it would replace.
"There would be no more fitting memorial to the sniper victims than to pass this legislation," the county executive said.
Duncan said Ehrlich should support the proposal.
"The majority of Marylanders support common sense gun legislation, and that's what this is," Duncan said.
But Ehrlich aides indicated the governor was in no rush to embrace more gun laws, and was just as concerned about his gun-crime sentencing proposal modeled after Richmond, Virginia's Project Exile, also killed by the Assembly this year.
"The administration believes Maryland has enough stringent gun laws," said DeLeaver, the spokeswoman. "However, we hope that elected officials, including County Executive Duncan and Mayor O'Malley apply the same kind of enthusiasm to helping the governor pass Project Exile during the next legislative session."
National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said Maryland and other states don't need their own legislation to replace the federal ban. Assault weapons are used in only a small fraction of crimes, he said.
"This is obviously an ineffective law," he said. "Congress originally wanted to study the effectiveness of the law. If it was ineffective, they wanted is to sunset. Since then, there's proof the law is ineffective."
Arulanandam said the NRA would take an active role in trying to defeat the Maryland legislation next year.
Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.