Gun control battle moves to state Senate floor

Licensing provision to be a key focus of debate

February 22, 2013|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

Key provisions of Gov. Martin O'Malley's sweeping gun-control plan face renewed battles in the Maryland Senate next week, while the House of Delegates launches hearings expected to be just as contentious as those that brought thousands of people to Annapolis this month.

Lawmakers are again bracing for crowds as each chamber presses forward with O'Malley's proposal, which would give Maryland some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. The governor is scheduled to appear at a Friday rally for his bill.

A handgun licensing provision pushed by advocates as the most effective way to curb gun deaths has been targeted by gun-rights lawmakers as the most onerous and objectionable part of O'Malley's plan.

Opponents and supporters both anticipate that licensing will emerge as the greatest source of controversy among proposals that would also ban the sale of assault weapons, limit the size of magazines, and expand provisions to keep firearms from certain people with mental illnesses.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee amended O'Malley's bill late Thursday to make it cheaper and easier to get a license to buy a handgun than originally proposed. But even that version is expected to attract high-profile opposition.

Sen. Brian Frosh, the committee's chairman, said Friday he will spend the weekend reviewing all the adopted changes. He expects to have to defend core provisions of the licensing requirement during a Senate debate tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.

He called the modified proposal imperfect, but said: "The licensing provision will save lives."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the changes to the licensing plan did not go far enough and that he wants lawmakers to strip out a provision that would require handgun buyers to give fingerprints to state police.

"I'd go to Virginia [to buy a gun] before I'd give my fingerprints to any government agency," Miller said.

Gun-control advocates say fingerprinting is an important step in stopping "straw purchases," in which someone buys a gun on behalf of another, potentially putting firearms into the hands of criminals. A fingerprint requirement is likely to discourage such purchases, the bill's supporters say.

But opponents say the many provisions of the licensing, taken together, create a huge barrier to ownership that would burden law-abiding citizens.

"From a practical standpoint, we have a gun ban," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Annapolis, said the organization flatly rejects any form of licensing, regardless of the fees or parameters. "You cannot ask someone to get a license to exercise a civil right," she said.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, has briefed both House and Senate panels on research that shows states like New Jersey and New York, which have such licensing and fingerprinting laws, have significantly fewer per-capita gun deaths compared to the rest of the country. States with such laws, Webster has said, also see that most firearms used in their states were purchased elsewhere.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Webster's research makes a compelling case that Maryland needs a licensing provision, though he expects the details to be contentious.

Busch convened a work group of 15 lawmakers to receive private briefings from mental health experts, the state superintendent of schools and health secretary, gun manufacturers, gun-policy researchers, Baltimore's police commissioner and others before hearings even begin.

He said that each of the delegation rooms on the expansive first floor of the Lowe House Office Building will provide live streaming of the joint committee hearing scheduled for Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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