The swing voter on a heated issue

Giannetti: In the debate on an assault weapons ban, the senator's decision is bound to anger one side or the other.

General Assembly

February 25, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

State Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., who has a 25-year-old shotgun at home and a framed portrait behind his desk of himself with President Bill Clinton at the signing of the Gun Control Act of 2000, won't be re-elected.

That is what advocates on both sides of the debate over an assault weapons ban have told staffers in his Annapolis office:

"Vote it up, and you'll be gone."

"Kill it, and get ready to be replaced."

Giannetti is the only undecided member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is considering a bill to extend some form of a ban when the federal one expires in September. Of the other 10 members of the committee, five favor the ban and five oppose it -- making him the swing vote on an issue that elicits strong emotions on both sides.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Tuesday's editions, George F. Johnson IV, the Anne Arundel County sheriff, was misidentified as the county police chief.

"It's intense, but it's having the opposite effect than intended," said the Democrat who represents conservative pockets of Anne Arundel County and liberal bastions in Prince George's County. "Both sides have threatened that no matter how it pans out, they're gonna run somebody against me, which kind of cancels out the threats."

In private meetings over the past two weeks, Giannetti has interrogated law enforcement officials from his district and lobbyists for and against gun control to understand where he should stand on the proposal that would ban 45 assault firearms. He is also seeking advice on his amendment that would instead establish a state version of the federal ban on 19 semiautomatic arms.

Voices for gun control, including CeaseFire Maryland, say the federal ban is riddled with loopholes, so tighter controls on more firearms are needed. Voices for gun-owner rights, such as the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, say the federal ban was ineffective at preventing high-profile incidents such as the Washington area sniper shootings in 2002, so why bother with any ban?

Giannetti said his vote hinges on the private considerations of the likes of John A. Bartlett Jr., president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police; Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson; Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, Anne Arundel County Police Chief George F. Johnson IV; and Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, superintendent of the state police and a former colleague in the House of Delegates.

"I realize that there is a lot riding on my decision, and not just politics," Giannetti said yesterday after the Senate recessed for the day. "I've got to understand why the state police came out against the bill and why the FOP came out against it."

Late Monday, Leah Barrett, CeaseFire Maryland's executive director, urged Giannetti to "do what's right for a change" and vote according to his conscience.

"He assured me he did have one," she said, without so much as a laugh.

Going with Barrett to the meeting was a Benjamin Tasker Middle School music teacher whose brother, FBI agent Mike Miller, was killed with a DC TEC-9 assault pistol in a shooting at District of Columbia police headquarters a decade ago.

They went away unsatisfied. "He couldn't give us any assurances," Barrett said. "I really am confused as to why he is having to wrestle so hard with this issue."

Moments after the women left, Giannetti met with someone on the opposing side.

Pragmatism is fueling his labored decision-making, he said, given that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. opposed the federal ban in Congress and hasn't changed his position as governor.

"Is it still a worthy political endeavor to push the bill through to get something on the governor's desk that he's not going to sign?" Giannetti said. "I guarantee I will not walk on the bill. I'm responsible to vote, and I'm willing to vote because we need to make a decision one way or another this year."

The Senate bill to ban, and a House version, are supported by more than 70 lawmakers, and prompted a deluge of correspondence and calls to Giannetti's Annapolis office. Since a meeting Feb. 10 of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that was packed with hundreds of people, receptionists have logged more than 1,000 e-mails and the telephone has rung 150 times a day from callers wanting to weigh in. Most of the lobbying came from outside Giannetti's district, said aide Caroline Rivera.

But within the district, feedback is "pretty evenly split," said Giannetti.

Giannetti was elected to the House of Delegates in 1998, then won a Senate seat in 2002. He has a reputation as a prolific bill writer, introducing 28 bills this year on subjects that include penalties for drivers who fail to yield the right-of-way and making it a crime to watch dogfights or cockfights. He had the highest number of bills passed by the Senate last year, a sign, he said, of his ability to compromise.

"I'm not a powerbroker by any means, nor do I want to be one," Giannetti said. "Sometimes, to get one of my bills through, I'd have to let two other bills die."

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