Assault weapons ban stalls in Senate

Bill would replace federal law due to expire

Last-ditch maneuver possible

General Assembly

March 23, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

A proposed state ban on assault weapons appears doomed this year in Annapolis -- unless the sponsor pursues an unusual parliamentary maneuver.

The bill faces a governor who opposes it and a Senate committee poised to reject it by a single vote. Failure means firearms outlawed by the expiring federal ban could go back on the market in Maryland this fall.

But Sen. Robert J. Garagiola could wed the stalled weapons ban with a tax bill he has recently introduced. That effort might be the last best hope of supporters because the original bill is hung up in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The 11-member committee is split: six against the ban, five in favor.

Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh has held off on a committee vote for six weeks, hoping to sway the one-time swing vote, Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., who now opposes the ban.

But Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, has been unable to convince Giannetti and now concedes there are insufficient votes to pass the bill, which he supports.

"I don't see anything else favorable playing out," a dejected Frosh said last week.

The proposed ban, sponsored by Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, would outlaw 45 types of assault weapons, to help fill in loopholes in the federal ban.

But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., has taken an aggressive role in lobbying against the measure, sounding out members of the Senate committee to identify one additional ally to kill the bill. His message found its mark with Giannetti, a Democrat from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties who had considered sponsoring the assault weapons ban legislation last fall.

"The governor strongly opposes this legislation," explained Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director. "The conversations the governor had with Senator Giannetti were in large part philosophical discussions. They talked about other states, the difference between gun control and crime control, the effectiveness and lack of effectiveness of gun control laws."

Last month, Giannetti traded his swing vote for a "No" vote, prompting the chairman to delay any vote while the bill's sponsor explored other means to get the legislation before the full Senate.

Garagiola may have struck gold with Senate Bill 927, titled "Assault Weapon User Fee." Introduced by him March 8 and under review by the Senate Rules Committee, the bill would impose a 10 percent tax on the sale of assault weapons in the state.

Under state legislative rules, amendments have to be related to an aspect of the original bill in order to discourage unrelated riders. Because the tax bill applies to guns, it could be amended with language comparable to the federal ban in committee or on the floor of the Senate.

If released by the Rules Committee -- where late-filed bills begin -- the tax bill would be routed to Budget and Taxation Committee, avoiding Judicial Proceedings.

Garagiola declined to discuss specifics on how he might get his bill out of committee, but he said he hasn't given up trying.

"I wouldn't put the RIP on it yet; we're looking for ways to overcome this obstacle," he said.

But Leah Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, a group that fights for gun control in Annapolis, remains glum.

"Pure politics," she said. In a best-case scenario, Maryland would end up with law that replicates the federal ban, she said. "That's not what we were hoping for, but considering the political realities, we're going to try to get what we can."

Jim Purtilo, editor of Tripwire, a 60,000-circulation gun rights newsletter in Maryland, is ready to gloat. But he said he'll try to wait until the General Assembly adjourns on April 12.

"I don't doubt that we'll hear more hollering and debate about this issue, but I don't think that changes the picture in the end," he said. "No vote, that's a victory; if it gets killed, that's a really big victory."

Legislators from seven states considering similar bans are tracking the fate of Maryland's proposed assault weapons bill, written to go into effect when the 1994 federal ban on 19 named firearms expires in September.

Bills in Louisiana, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania would restrict the sale, transfer and possession of certain semi-automatic military-style weapons.

"The politics in each state is very, very different," said Eric Gorovitz, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Ban advocates are more hopeful in New York, where legislators approved a ban this monthon .50-caliber sniper rifles.

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