ANNAPOLIS – With less than a month before they must report to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, members of a task force to curb gun violence in Maryland are beginning to shape the proposals they will put before the 1996 General Assembly.
On the table after a marathon eight-hour work session this week are:
* Limits on plea bargains in hand gun cases.
* Restrictions on handgun purchases to one per month, similar to a new Virginia law.
* A provision allowing urban areas to enact their own gun controls.
* Stronger restrictions on secondhand gun sales.
* A registry giving gun sellers quick access to whether a customer had been committed to a mental institution.
State police say that between 1989 and 1993, Maryland saw a 57 percent increase in firearms-related crime. Close to 27,000 of Maryland’s 4.5 million citizens own guns.
Cracking down on handgun offenses, the commission voted to recommend that state’s attorneys not dismiss or offer plea bargains in such cases.
“Too many times, handgun offenders can get off with a plea bargain, what kind of message does that send to people?” asked Howard County State’s Attorney Marna McLendon, who co-chairs the 17-member panel.
Under current state law, when customers are approved to buy a handgun they may purchase unlimited numbers after the required seven-day waiting period.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, offered the rationale for the commission’s decision to recommend new purchase limits:
“Because most people would buy a handgun to protect themselves, I don’t know why they would need more than one. This reduces the number of handguns that might fall into the wrong hands.”
But the panel put off a decision on a recommendation to permit urban areas, with their higher crime rates, the right to make their own gun control policies.
“I hope the vote will come up again,” said Tracy Brown, director of the Baltimore mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice. “Cities have unique needs in this issue, and should be granted the power by the state Legislature to deal with those needs.”
While Maryland wins praise from gun-control advocates for its seven-day waiting period for purchase of a gun from a licensed store, no waiting period is observed when a gun is bought secondhand from an individual.
The commission voted to subject every seller to the same licensing requirements to which gun stores must abide.
“I could buy a gun as a gift to someone who might not be licensed to buy a gun themselves,” said Sen. Phil Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel. “This law would prohibit that from happening.”
State law also says guns should not be sold to people who have been committed to mental institutions, but obtaining that information is virtually impossible, commission members said.
The commission voted to recommend that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene construct a registry naming those who have been committed to a psychiatric institution.
John Collins, chief of police for the University of Maryland at Baltimore, raised questions about patients’ right to privacy. But McLendon countered, “It wouldn’t violate the privacy of someone to find out just a yes or no answer by tapping into the registry.”
The preliminary recommendations are the culmination of six months of grueling public hearings, analysis and argument.
The commission includes a prosecutor, a gun-control lobbyist, clergymen, the head of the state police union and the mother of a gunshot victim. With representatives from Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse but no one from the National Rifle Association, gun enthusiasts have complained the deck is stacked.
In interviews, commission members lamented the difficulties they have faced. They have felt caught between wanting both to curb gun violence in the state and to preserve Marylanders’ right to bear arms, several said.
“We’ve been called everything — including Nazis — from people around the state,” said Daryl Jones, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police.
“We’ve been through touching testimony from victims of gun- related crimes to speeches from law-abiding gun sports enthusiasts who fear their rights will be infringed upon,” Jones added.
Commission member Brown believes the deliberations have been even-handed. Criticism that the panel is biased “are unfair,” she said. “I didn’t take lightly the rights of law abiding citizens who want to own guns.”
Jones, meanwhile, said the commission took all views into account.
“Our job,” he observed, “is to sort out the emotion from the task at hand.” The commission’s report is due to the governor on Nov. 1. -30-