ANNAPOLIS – As the three men barreled toward him late one night after session, Del. Thomas Hutchins instinctively reached into his jacket pocket – where he carries his handgun.
He didn’t have the gun with him. But he has a permit to carry one. Hutchins said he fled unscathed that January night in 1995, and reported the suspicious incident to Annapolis police.
“I wasn’t looking for a conflict,” he recalled. “I just wanted to be able to protect myself by having the gun in an uncomfortable situation.”
Five of Maryland’s 188 lawmakers hold permits to carry concealed weapons, according to a State Police response to an open records request. In addition to Hutchins, R-Charles, they are Sen. John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel, and Delegates Phillip Bissett, R-Anne Arundel, Thomas E. Hutchins, R-Charles, George W. Owings III, D-Calvert, and Michael Weir, D-Baltimore County.
Four said this week that they would fight stricter gun control in the 1996 session, which begins Jan. 10.
Astle, however, said he would soften his opposition when Gov. Parris N. Glendening presents a commission’s recommendations next month.
“Having grown up in rural West Virginia, guns were an integral part of society,” Astle said. “I went on to the Marine Corps and the police force, where guns were around all the time.
“But it’s a different world…with a rising tide of violence. I look forward to what the governor will present to us as the frame of the debate.”
Owings will remain opposed, he said.
“There are enough laws already on the books to prevent people who shouldn’t have access to guns from getting them,” Owings said, citing banned sales to minors and convicted felons.
Weir applied for his permit after constituents complained that the process was difficult and lengthy.
The police “asked a lot of nit-picky things,” he said. “It is so frustrating to me when laws come up that make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to get guns.”
According to State Police, 22,000 Marylanders hold concealed weapons permits. Checking an applicant’s fingerprints, references, FBI records and background takes three to four months.
Hutchins said the thoroughness of that process, along with Maryland’s required seven-day wait for handgun purchase, was all the gun control needed.
But he said he hoped to speed permit applications.
“I plan to back a law that would allow Marylanders to fax their application for gun permits to the State Police. It would greatly expedite the whole process if there were not all that dead time in the mail,” Hutchins said.
Bissett said Maryland needed only one more gun law: to deny public access to names of those who hold permits.
“The reason they are called concealed weapons is because they are supposed to be concealed,” he said. “So is the fact that we have them. I am appalled that anyone can get this information from police.”
Bissett applied for his permit for “safety reasons,” but would not elaborate.
Fear that their public role jeopardizes their safety was one reason the others gave for carrying guns.
“Someone may not like the way I vote and that puts me in danger,” Owings said. “There are fanatics out there. Look at the bombings at [abortion] clinics.”
Hutchins said people held grudges against him from his days on the State Police.
“I certainly can’t remember all the people I have arrested in my life. But they may well remember me when they get out on parole,” he said. “They can easily find me now because of my public role.”
He said he finds comfort in his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun whenever he recalls threats from a murderer in the ’70s.
No longer in uniform, Hutchins feels vulnerable to crime. Astle, a former Baltimore police officer, echoed those concerns.
“When you are a police officer, you deal with a different element of society,” Astle said. “It’s a hard thing to forget about.”
Owings owns several shotguns, rifles and handguns, and is a gun safety advocate. Before allowing his son to hunt geese at age 16, Owings made him take a safety class.
Weir said he was introduced to guns as a youthful deer hunter. He owns 15 — shotguns, rifles and handguns. And he said it was his right to have them.
“I feel very strongly that we should be able to protect ourselves. If somebody is going to come into my home that I don’t want there, I’m going to have that option.”
But Weir is sure to get an argument during the session from Dick Willis, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, the state’s key anti-gun group. “The fact that a legislator feels safer with a gun shows they think there needs to be solutions for crime and violence,” Willis said. “I don’t approve of their solution. The fewer guns out there, the better.” -30-