A crime is committed with an assault rifle in Maryland at least every 48 hours, according to a report issued last fall by the group CeaseFire Maryland.
A federal ban on assault weapons was approved in 1994 with the support of former presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford and Richard M. Nixon, and others including former Sen. Barry Goldwater. This law was allowed to expire in September 2004.
Gun manufacturers who sought to evade the law designed "copycat" weapons like those used by the D.C. snipers to terrorize residents a little more than four years ago.
Now, Maryland has the opportunity to help protect its citizens and set an example for other state and federal officials by enacting the Maryland Assault Weapons Ban of 2007. The proposed legislation builds on the assault pistol ban enacted in Maryland in 1994 by also banning assault rifles. The bill focuses on the concealability and firepower of the weapons and on the design features that make possible deadly and indiscriminate "spray firing."
The sole purpose of the weapons targeted by the bill is to lay down a huge volume of fire over a wide killing zone (also known as "hosing down" an area). There are grandfather provisions with regard to previously owned assault rifles as long as they are registered with the Maryland State Police.
Opponents will say that this legislation bans assault rifles based only on "cosmetic" features of the firearm. But we shouldn't view military features of semiautomatic assault weapons as cosmetic. For example, assault weapons are equipped with large-capacity ammunition magazines that allow the shooter to fire more than 100 rounds without having to reload. Pistol grips on assault rifles and shotguns help stabilize the weapon during rapid fire and allow the shooter to spray-fire from the hip position. Barrel shrouds on assault pistols protect the shooter's hands from the heat generated by firing many rounds in rapid succession.
Far from being "cosmetic," these features contribute to the unique function of any assault weapon to deliver extraordinary firepower. Some will say that legitimate sport shooters will be inconvenienced by a ban. That's not true. Hunters don't use 20-, 30- or 50-round clips to shoot deer.
Some will also say banning such weapons interferes with the right to self-defense. However, anyone who wants a firearm for self-defense should definitely not get an assault weapon. They are terrible self-defense tools. That's because they were designed for offense - to kill many people in a crowded setting, very quickly.
A new state senator, Michael G. Lenett, has introduced this bill to ban the military-style weapons. Senator Lenett was put in office in the same election that saw the defeat of the principal opponent of a state assault weapons ban in past legislative sessions, former Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr.
With Mr. Giannetti gone, the swing vote in committee this year appears to be Baltimore County's James Brochin, who has aligned himself with gun rights groups in the past but whose district includes large numbers of moderate, suburban voters from both parties.
Mr. Brochin and his colleagues have an important decision to make. Will they let this bill out of committee, setting up a vote by the full Senate? Will they side with the many who believe that military-style firearms represent a serious threat to public safety - or with the few who refuse to acknowledge the destruction caused by these weapons of war on our streets?
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, is a former three-term Republican Mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. His e-mail is email@example.com.