Spat over ad spotlights Ehrlich's gun position

Duncan's claim that governor favors `more assault weapons' prompts objections

Maryland Votes 2006


The campaign manager for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is demanding that Baltimore television stations stop airing an ad by a prospective rival, a call that is focusing discussion in the race on the Republican governor's stand on assault weapons.

Over the weekend, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, got some free publicity when at least one local television news program ran a story about Ehrlich campaign manager Bo Harmon's protests concerning Duncan's latest commercial.

In the 15-second spot, Duncan claims the governor "thinks we need more assault weapons on the street."

Minutes after Duncan released the ad last week, Harmon issued a statement saying it "distorts the Governor's position by using written text that states that the Governor does not support the proposed assault weapons ban legislation."

Yesterday, Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat and one of the lead proponents of expanding Maryland's assault weapons ban to include military-style rifles, said Harmon's objections were "hypocritical and designed to conceal the truth."

Quinter, who sponsored the most recent assault weapons ban legislation, said Ehrlich engaged in a fevered, behind-the-scenes effort to kill the legislation when it came close to passage in 2004.

"His administration actively worked against it," said Quinter, who supports Duncan's primary opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, for governor.

Harmon said yesterday that he will react aggressively against attacks based on "blatantly false information."

"Does it sound reasonable to you that anybody would want more assault weapons on the street?" Harmon said. "People are welcome to have a different opinion on a variety of issues, but they need to be truthful about it."

Harmon said he would make follow-up phone calls to television stations today. If necessary, he said, the Ehrlich campaign could take the stations to court to force them to take the ads down.

Duncan campaign spokeswoman Jody Couser said the ad is "100 percent accurate." None of the four Baltimore-area stations on which it is running intends to remove it from the air, she said.

"I will be more than happy to change my television commercial as soon as Bob Ehrlich changes his position on assault weapons," Duncan said in a statement.

Ehrlich voted against Maryland's current ban on assault pistols as a member of the House of Delegates in 1994. As a member of Congress, Ehrlich voted in 1996 to repeal the federal assault weapons ban. In 2004, as the federal ban was about to expire, Ehrlich lobbied hard to prevent enactment of a similar state statute that would have expanded Maryland's assault weapons ban, which covers certain handguns, to include assault rifles.

"The governor strongly opposes this legislation," Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick said at the time.

A February 2004 survey by independent pollster Patrick Gonzales found that 74 percent of Maryland voters - including 66 percent of Republicans - supported the bill. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Harmon said the governor thinks Maryland's assault weapons ban should neither be expanded nor repealed.

Richard E. Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and a longtime friend of the governor, said he thinks Harmon's criticism of the substance of the ad is right on.

But Vatz said he thinks Harmon was too aggressive in voicing it. Threatening to sue the stations just keeps the ad in the news, he said. Duncan has trailed in fundraising, and his campaign has not disclosed how much money it is spending to air the spot.

"I would not have come out as strongly as Bo Harmon came out," Vatz said. "I would not have immediately approached the television stations, but I would have pointed out the absolutely unambiguous nature of the falsehood."

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