O'Malley to push sweeping gun control, licensing plan

Licensing rules would be among nation's strictest

  • Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at the start of a two-day gun control summit at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at the start of a… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
January 14, 2013|By Erin Cox and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Monday broad details of a plan that would give Maryland among the nation's strictest gun laws.

No one could buy a handgun without first passing a training course and providing fingerprints to a police database. That licensing provision, expected to be controversial in Annapolis, is the most sweeping change in a proposal that also includes a ban on the sale of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, which were used in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting that has sparked a national debate on gun control.

"There is a sickness in this country, and that sickness is gun violence," O'Malley said, repeating a phrase he has used in the weeks since the December shooting that killed 20 children. "Gun violence is truly a public health issue," he said.

Flanked by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, O'Malley announced the legislative package at a gathering of national and international gun policy researchers at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Also on Monday, President Barack Obama said he would consider "common-sense steps" to strengthen federal gun laws, including stronger background checks and a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. His plans to unveil his proposal this week.

"If in fact — and I believe this is true — everybody across party lines was as deeply moved ... as I was by what happened in Newtown, then we're going to have to vote based on what we think is best," the president said. "We're going to have to come up with answers that set politics aside."

O'Malley said he plans to introduce a "comprehensive" package this week that would strengthen school security, expand the information sent to databases used for gun background checks and establish a "Center for Excellence" to study and treat mental illness.

Under the governor's licensing proposal, any handgun purchaser would need a Maryland State Police license granted only after fingerprinting, a more extensive background check than currently required, and completion of a gun class like those taught across the country by the National Rifle Association.

Currently, "we don't have any training requirements," said Stacy A. Mayer, O'Malley's chief legislative officer. "People can walk out of the store not necessarily knowing where the safety is."

Gun-control advocates and some public safety leaders praised the licensing provision as the most effective way to prevent gun deaths. Some political observers, meanwhile, saw the proposal — along with the national stage on which it was announced — as an opportunity for the two-term Democratic governor to position himself as a potential presidential candidate.

"This appeals to the Democratic base," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "If he can get out in front on this and show some success legislatively on this, it bodes well for him in the Democratic primary."

The governor's federal O'Say Can You See political action committee, widely considered a fundraising tool for a potential presidential bid, sent an email to supporters detailing O'Malley's new gun proposal shortly after he announced it. O'Malley aides dismissed as "ridiculous" the suggestion that the announcement signaled presidential aspirations.

While public polls and legislative leaders support banning the sale of assault weapons, a measure O'Malley predicted last week would pass the Maryland General Assembly, the licensing provision is expected to meet passionate opposition from gun-rights advocates.

A similar licensing proposal to require fingerprinting to purchase a weapon could not overcome objections in a key Senate committee a few years ago. But Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Frosh said Monday that "the climate has changed" since then and having O'Malley's backing is "a huge asset."

"I think at this point, at least, people viscerally understand how destructive assault weapons are and how pointless they are for the law-abiding citizen," said Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County who introduced the earlier measure. He said the licensing proposal would be a harder sell.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Monday he has long favored licensing weapons. "It seems to me that if everyone needs a license to drive a car, why don't you need it for a gun?" Busch asked.

Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican, said he could support broadened licensing and training requirements for handgun owners as long as they were accompanied by an expanded right to carry — something O'Malley did not propose. Current Maryland law, Parrott said, makes it "almost impossible" to carry a handgun.

Parrott expressed misgivings about the proposed assault weapon ban and magazine limits.

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