Guns and the governor's race [Editorial]

Our view: Brown and Hogan need to get beyond airing and responding to attack ads to provide specifics for how they would make Md.'s new gun safety law work to reduce death and injury

September 30, 2014

Wednesday marks the anniversary of Maryland's tough new gun control law going into effect, and advocates are marking the occasion with a rally in Columbia. The law is getting some recognition in the governor's race, too, with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democrat, hammering at his opponent, Republican Larry Hogan, for opposing the state's assault weapons ban, the ban on sales of high-capacity ammunition magazines and "common sense background checks."

The claims are true in that Mr. Hogan opposed Senate Bill 281 of 2013, the gun control legislation Gov. Martin O'Malley pushed through (with some assistance from Mr. Brown) in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings the previous December. That legislation includes the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans. The law also includes a provision for the state police to do criminal records checks as part of a new licensing program for handgun purchasers, though that is not altogether different from the background check requirements Maryland already enforced and to which Mr. Hogan had not objected.

Mr. Hogan seeks to deflect the whole matter by saying that while he did not think the 2013 bill was the most effective approach, he would not seek to repeal it and would focus his priorities on keeping guns away from criminals and those suffering from mental illness.

What's a voter to conclude? Does Mr. Hogan really have the "dangerous" agenda that Mr. Brown's TV ads would suggest?

While the question is nowhere near so black and white as Mr. Brown's ads would suggest, there is a real issue here. The ultimate success of Maryland's new gun law depends on more than merely leaving it on the books. It also matters how vigorously the governor administers it, and for that reason it merits a more detailed discussion than it's getting by either candidate.

For example, in addition to its better known provisions, SB 281 includes new regulations on licensed firearms dealers and new powers for the state police to monitor them. That's important because Maryland has ranked near the top nationally in the number of firearms its federally licensed dealers report as lost, which should raise concerns among authorities about whether some of those guns are actually being sold illegally, off-books to people who would be prohibited from owning them. This is not a hypothetical concern. The most famous such case in the state was that of Valley Gun, a Parkville gun shop repeatedly cited by federal authorities for record-keeping discrepancies that meant large numbers of guns could not be traced to their owners. Hundreds of guns from that shop wound up at crime scenes in Baltimore alone. Nonetheless, it took federal authorities years to discover the problem and years more to shut Valley Gun down. Thanks to budget cuts, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can only inspect licensed dealers once every five years, at best. But Maryland's new law ameliorates that problem by requiring the state police to inspect the inventory and records of every dealer at least every two years and as often as officials deem necessary. The question those who seek to be Maryland's next governor need to answer is, how big a priority will such investigations be for the next state police superintendent, and how much funding will he or she have to pursue them?

But that's not the only question. The law also includes a requirement that individuals report lost or stolen guns as a means to ensure that unscrupulous individuals aren't ducking the state requirement for background checks in private sales. How many resources will the next governor devote to investigating those cases? Part of the new licensing system for handgun purchasers calls for them to be fingerprinted, a requirement intended to cut down on so-called "straw purchasers" who would buy guns for those who are banned from doing so. But the fingerprints are generally taken at licensed, private businesses. The O'Malley administration has gone to great lengths to communicate the message that the process is the legal equivalent of giving fingerprints to the state police. Would the next governor be so diligent? And although Maryland's new gun law is generally considered to be among the most comprehensive (if not the most comprehensive) passed by any state in recent years, there are more steps the state could take. Noted Johns Hopkins gun researcher Daniel Webster, a key architect of SB 281, gave a recent talk in which he outlined four policies that could cut down on gun deaths nationally. Maryland already employs many of those elements, but it could, for example, increase restrictions so that those who are convicted of multiple lesser offenses involving violence, alcohol or drugs would be banned from gun ownership for a period of time. It could also require gun dealers to employ greater anti-theft measures. Would the next governor be open to such steps?

Mr. Hogan has not outlined his views on gun regulations in detail, and Mr. Brown seems to assume we will take as a given that he will pursue this issue with the same ardor as Mr. O'Malley. But this issue is too important to leave unaddressed in the race to succeed Mr. O'Malley. State data from the first eight months of this year show a 15 percent drop in gun deaths (including suicides and accidental shootings) compared to the same period a year before. It's too early, of course, to say what role the new law played in that trend, but it is certainly encouraging. We need to know what the candidates would do to make it continue.


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