A little-noticed provision tucked at the end of the sweeping gun legislation approved by the General Assembly last month would shield from view key state gun records that now are public — a change that was pushed by gun-rights advocates during the intense legislative debate and passed unknown to the most ardent gun-control supporters.
Current laws allow the Maryland State Police to release the names of people who apply to buy guns, who hold collector's licenses and concealed-carry permits, as well as details about weapon sales. Under the new gun bill, which Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign, that information would no longer be available to the public.
Advocates of open government say the change drops a curtain over an already narrow window into Maryland's gun industry.
"Sales records or purchase records would be useful to the public to determine whether our laws are working, whether our laws are strong enough, or whether our laws are too restrictive," Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said Friday.
She said a beaten wife would no longer be able to ask a gun store if it had sold a weapon to her husband, and a concerned sister could no longer find out if a family member with depression had obtained a firearm.
"It's like taking a meat cleaver to problem that needs a scalpel," Bevan-Dangel said. "There's an interest in privacy, sure, but there's also an interest in public safety. This seems to cross that line."
Some lawmakers who backed the bill said they accepted the change as the cost of getting passage of the broader law, which bans 45 types of assault-style weapons, requires fingerprints and a license to buy a handgun, and limits magazines to 10 rounds.
Records access "is a very hotly contested issue in and of itself," said Sen. Brian Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who ushered the gun bill through his chamber.
Frosh characterized the impact of the change as minor because Maryland State Police do not now release addresses, birth dates or Social Security numbers of gun owners. But he called it "cause for concern."
"There's still some value in the public knowing and understanding what kind of sales and transfers are being made," Frosh said.
It was not immediately clear whether gun researchers would be barred from accessing broader information about sales by specific dealers.
Though O'Malley has yet to sign the bill, a Montgomery County woman has begun the process of petitioning it to a referendum.
Sue Payne sent a draft of her petition this week to the state Board of Elections for review. While the National Rifle Association and other groups have declined to mount a petition effort, she says she wanted to start the process in case someone wants to step in and take it up.
Payne said she has a Web designer ready to create a website called Free State Petitions to help collect signatures. More than 55,000 are needed by the end of June to suspend the law and let voters decide the matter in November 2014.
"I will turn over the language to whoever wants to come and do this under the banner of Free State Petitions so that the citizens of the state can have a voice," she said.
Making gun ownership records private was among several ideas gun-rights advocates in the General Assembly were successful in adding to the bill, even though they ultimately voted against it.
Republicans and some moderate Democrats also backed provisions to allow gun dealers to sell their existing inventory of assault rifles after the ban takes effect on Oct. 1, and to allow customers who place orders for such weapons before that date to complete the purchase after.
Del. Kevin Kelly, sponsored legislation to exempt gun ownership from public records. The Western Maryland Democrat supports gun rights.
Kelly, who says he acquired a database of gun owners' names and addresses on at least two occasions for the purpose of identifying fellow gun rights supporters, said he withdrew his bill when the idea was incorporated into the gun law introduced by O'Malley.
"That governor's bill has all kinds of past gun bills in it, and since [lawmakers] stuck in all sorts of stuff, we thought we should, too," Kelly said. "It was like making soup. They took some ingredients from here and there, and put it in."
Kelly voted against the broader gun bill.
He has been able to get names and addresses of gun owners because certain public record laws do not apply to state lawmakers. He said he wanted to make the information private after a newspaper in New York published a database of gun owners in Westchester County, including names and addresses.
Critics said the publication of the database by the News Journal made gun owners potential robbery targets.
"The problem is, you only need one irresponsible individual," Kelly said. "The horse is out of the barn, not to be put back again."