House 'Gun Day' Highlights Stalemate in Assembly

Capital News Service
Friday, March 4, 2011


A dozen bills were heard on "Gun Day" at the Maryland Legislature. (Video by CNS-TV's Jessica MacLeod)

ANNAPOLIS - When the House Judiciary Committee meets next week, just days after it finished wrestling with a contentious same-sex marriage proposal, lawmakers will be greeted by another lightning rod issue: Guns.


Tuesday is the House committee's annual "gun day," when hundreds of Second Amendment and gun control advocates clash over bills intended to shape how Marylanders purchase, carry and use firearms. This year, a dozen gun bills are on the schedule, including a pair backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.


But if recent history is any indicator, the vast majority of firearm proposals debated in the House committee Tuesday are poised to fail. It's the product of what advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the issue have described as the General Assembly's long-running stalemate when it comes to guns.


The last time the legislature approved a sweeping gun-control bill was in 2000. Under then-Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, the state passed landmark legislation that put in place a system for ballistic fingerprinting and required built-in child safety locks for handguns.


Since then, lawmakers have been largely reluctant to loosen or tighten gun restrictions.


"We are chicken," said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery Democrat whose bill limiting the size of ammunition clips to hold no more than 10 rounds will be heard Tuesday. "We're not taking the issue as serious as it warrants."


The general approach over the last couple of years has been one of maintaining the status quo on the issue of guns, said Delegate Luiz Simmons, an influential member of the House Judiciary Committee. It's an agenda, Simmons said, that's set by the state's highest levels of leadership -- from the governor to the House speaker and Senate president.


"The approach has been we're going to do nothing unless forced by some horrific incident that exposes a real flaw in the law." said Simmons, D-Montgomery.


As a result, the chances of a major piece of gun legislation passing this session are slim, he said.


Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. That has allowed some lawmakers to skirt the issue, said Lisa Miller Delity, a board member of the gun-control group CeaseFire Maryland.


Under Glendening, who served from 1995 to 2003, gun bills were a "big issue and was something that was talked about and dealt with," Miller Delity said.


But under O'Malley and his Republican predecessor Robert Ehrlich, the issue fizzled, she said.


This session, O'Malley is putting his weight behind two gun bills as part of his legislative agenda.


O'Malley is looking to "close a loophole" and require that people convicted of committing a violent crime with a long gun, such as a rifle, face the same penalty that applies to those who use a handgun: mandatory five years without parole. He's also backing a bill that would increase the time convicted gun offenders spend in prison by reducing "good-time" credits.


"I think he could be louder and stronger on this issue. You see the splash on these environmental proposals that he's supporting," Gutierrez said, referencing the muscle that O'Malley this session has put behind proposals such as an offshore wind farm bill.


O'Malley, who helped push through legislation in 2009 that removed guns from the houses of domestic abusers, is slated to host a "Maryland Forward" Forum on guns and gang violence in Baltimore Thursday.


O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said the impact of just having the governor's name attached to a bill can't be underestimated. It's ultimately what might help "put over the top" the proposal to reduce good-time credits for convicted gun offenders, he said.


"He's doing his part to advocate for the issue," Adamec said.


Aside from O'Malley's two bills, a pair of proposals backed by Baltimore leaders that would tighten some gun laws also will be heard. Another bill scheduled for Tuesday would give state police broader authority to regulate gun stores.


And a proposal that would repeal the controversial "good and substantial" clause in the state's concealed carry law -- an annual favorite of Second Amendment advocates -- is on the schedule, too.


Up to 200 members of the pro-gun community are expected to swarm the committee hearing, said Paul Dembowski, president of the gun-rights group Maryland Shall Issue.


Showing up en mass to testify against gun restrictions is the best strategy to ward off new laws, Dembowski said. The group also floods the inboxes of committee members with emails in the days leading up to the hearing.


"Our people fight very good defense," Dembowski said, pointing to efforts that have killed past proposals to implement a statewide assault weapons ban."Conversely I don't think we do as good on offense to advance pro-gun legislation."


That's exactly why Delegate Don Dwyer, a Republican from Anne Arundel and fierce supporter of gun rights, said he isn't filing any gun bill this session. Dwyer, who almost annually files a bill to ease restrictions in the state's concealed carry law, said little will be accomplished on gun issues this session.


"My guess is it will remain the same," he said. "Neither side will advance, and we'll continue to hold."


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