With the support of a new Democratic governor, advocates for a state assault weaponsban said yesterday that they have the legislative backing and momentum to pass a bill this session.
"We are hopeful that the new political landscape will make a difference this year," said Sen. Michael G. Lenett, the Montgomery County Democrat sponsoring the proposal.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler are behind a proposal that would forbid the transport, sale, possession or purchase of military-style assault weapons. The 11-member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which heard hours of testimony yesterday on the proposal, appears split on the matter. If the bill were defeated in committee, it would take 16 senators to petition the initiative to the floor; the bill has 21 co-sponsors.
A proposed state ban died last year in the General Assembly. Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who had voted in 1996 while a member of Congress to repeal the federal assault weapons ban, didn't push for tougher state legislation.
The proposed assault weapons ban is the latest issue that had fizzled under Ehrlich to be resurrected with O'Malley at the helm. Tougher emissions standards for automobiles is another. Stem cell research will benefit from an additional $10 million commitment from O'Malley, a promise he made since being sworn in last month. And the governor lobbied last week for repeal of the death penalty.
O'Malley submitted a letter of support to the Senate committee yesterday, urging passage of the assault weapons ban, which designates 45 firearms as assault weapons.
"More than 600 people die in Maryland each year from gun violence -- on average, more than 50 victims every month," the governor said in a statement. "Assault weapons are so frequently used in crime that one assault rifle is traced back to a Maryland crime every 48 hours. This legislation will help prevent these guns from reaching Maryland streets and will therefore assist law enforcement efforts to keep our communities safe."
Gansler, a Democrat and former Montgomery County prosecutor, provided the committee with his endorsement as well. "Weapons optimized for killing large numbers of people as quickly and efficiently as possible have no place on the streets of our communities," he wrote in a letter.
In addition to the ban, the bill would impose a registration requirement and give gun owners a 60-day period, effective Oct. 1, to file the required information with the secretary of the state police.
Opponents, who packed the committee room and adjoining lounge wearing buttons with a slash through the bill number, testified yesterday that their Second Amendment rights would be violated should the bill be passed.
"We as abiding citizens will not be controlled by criminals," said John Hutchinson, a Montgomery County hunter and competitive marksman.
Clyde Lutter, a Gaithersburg engineer, said the proposed ban would "make us all less safe."
"The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It's not about sport. ... It's about self-defense," he said. Supporters of the ban testified that it would keep dangerous weapons off the streets and out of criminals' hands, that civilians have no need for weapons that are used in warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dale Miller, a 20-year-old from Calvert County, tearfully told the committee about her father, an FBI agent who was murdered in Washington police headquarters in 1997. The shooter was carrying a compact assault weapon, according to news reports.
"No little girl should have to grow up without her father, should have to walk down the aisle alone on her wedding day," she said.
Proponents also lauded Maryland for the 1994 passage of a ban on assault pistols but urged that the law be expanded to prevent tragedies such as the 2002 Washington-area sniper shootings.
Paul Helmke, president and CEO of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said most big-city mayors and police chiefs around the country are supportive.
"Maryland's doing a lot better than most states, but it could be doing better," said Helmke.
Representatives of the Maryland State Police testified in favor of the Maryland ban, saying it would help keep officers safe. A spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police lobbied against it, however, arguing that it would be difficult to enforce.