Gun referendum? Go ahead and make our day

Our view: Supporters of gun control stand to benefit most if the O'Malley firearm violence bill is petitioned to voter referendum in 2014

April 08, 2013

With Gov. Martin O'Malley's landmark gun control bill given final approval by the Senate on Friday and waiting only the governor's signature to be enacted into law, Democrats in Annapolis are likely hoping that the next step will be talk of the "R" word. And we don't mean Ruger, Remington, revolvers or repeating rifles.

Would you believe referendum?

Oh, gun control advocates won't necessarily be happy about the prospect of seeing the gun legislation taken to referendum — it would, after all, delay the effective date for at least 18 months while the matter is decided by voters in November 2014 — but you can bet a lot of people on the Democratic side of the aisle would be ecstatic.

That's because it's a virtual stone cold lead pipe lock (to borrow the phrase used by a popular sports talk show) for the law to be upheld at the ballot box. Why? To start with, because various polls show an overwhelming percentage of voters support the law's goals — as much as 80 percent on certain provisions, including majorities of Republicans and gun owners.

That may be news to gun control opponents who believe that mustering thousands of people to demonstrations in Annapolis or forcing legislative hearings to go until 3 a.m. to hear all the witnesses stacked up in opposition is a show of political strength. But what such protests actually demonstrate is that there are people who feel very strongly about guns and gun ownership and have enough time on their hands to do something about it.

Elections aren't decided by the strength of conviction, they are determined by number of votes cast. And the weakest support for any of the measures included in the bill — the ban on certain assault-style weapons — is still in the 60 percent in-favor range. Governor O'Malley would be happy to have those kinds of approval numbers.

But wait, you may be thinking. That's all theoretical. What if the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates spent a large sum of money on a political campaign leading up to election day? What if they motivated gun control opponents to show up at the polls in robust numbers? What if they could out-spend gun control advocates by a 10-to-1 margin?

Speculate no more. Maryland has seen exactly these circumstances before — and the outcome was a lopsided win for gun control.

The year was 1988, and the Maryland General Assembly had just approved — somewhat unexpectedly — a ban on so-called Saturday Night Specials, easily-concealed handguns often used in street crime. Opponents of the bill were outraged enough to gather a sufficient number of signatures to bring the matter to referendum that year.

The result was a 58-42 percent victory for the law despite the $7 million-to-$700,000 advantage opponents had to finance their campaign. The victory likely contributed to a brief uptick in interest in gun control nationwide.

Since then, Maryland voters have only gotten more liberal. You can bet that a referendum would motivate a lot more Democrats and other traditional gun control supporters to show up in 2014, and that might actually help the party in some swing suburban districts.

That's likely why Republicans look to be a little cautious about taking the legislation to referendum. Some are instead putting their efforts into a potential court challenges. (Although they are unlikely to prevail there, the adverse political fallout would be minimal.)

One thing about the Maryland GOP, they are learning to be pragmatists. Last year, Del. Neil Parrott of Washington County and others in his party tried to use voter referendums as a way to strike down controversial bills approved by Democrats — specifically, the Dream Act, same-sex marriage and congressional redistricting. They lost on all three by healthy margins and in doing so furthered the causes of gay and immigrant rights.

But even if Delegate Parrott abstains, others may not. Gun rights supporters may be too impassioned on the issue to think strategically. Unlike 1988, which was a presidential election year, statewide offices will be at stake in 2014. The result could be a victory for the Democratic candidates who most strongly embrace the gun bill.

And while the Saturday Night Special law of 25 years ago didn't spur much in the way of follow-up gun control efforts (then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer was hardly a firebrand on the issue), Democrats elected on the strength of a gun control majority might feel quite differently. To mix metaphors, the referendum is a two-edged sword. Small wonder Democrats are hoping to have their day made in 2014.

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