By Dennis Sean O’Brien
WASHINGTON – Only two of Maryland’s seven House members voted Friday to lift a two-year-old ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, cast their votes with the majority in the House to repeal the ban. The measure passed, 279-173, but faces a likely veto from President Clinton if the Senate sends it to him.
It is uncertain if the Senate will schedule a vote on the repeal.
Republican Reps. Constance Morella of Bethesda and Wayne Gilchrest of Kennedyville joined all three Maryland Democrats in voting to keep the ban.
“The First Amendment guarantees free speech, but there are limits. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, but there are limits, too,” Gilchrest said.
The measure would again allow the sale of 19 types of semiautomatic weapons, including AK-47s and Uzis. It would also permit the sales of rifles and guns with assault weapon characteristics and ammunition feeders that hold more than 10 rounds.
The repeal measure would impose severe penalties for those convicted of using guns when committing crimes, such as a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for brandishing a firearm in a criminal act.
Bartlett called the ban “useless” and said it picks weapons purely by how they look.
“Does the Constitution say you have a right to bear arms unless they’re ugly?” he asked. “These are not assault weapons. Assault weapons have been banned since 1934,” he said. The nation’s first gun control act passed that year and forbade machine guns.
Bartlett, 69, said FBI statistics show that people are more likely to be beaten to death than to be killed by rifles of any type, including those banned.
But Democratic Rep. Benjamin Cardin, 52, of Baltimore, called the ban reasonable. He said the only reason the House was voting to repeal it was because the Republican leadership was paying back its political debts to the National Rifle Association.
“[The ban] is a minimal inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, a minimal inconvenience to save lives,” Cardin said. “If the NRA is controlling policy, then Congress is of virtually no use.”
Cardin said Republican leaders limited floor debate on the issue because they knew the repeal was a “losing issue.” Most people and police favor the ban, he said, so prolonged hearings and debates on the repeal proposal would only allow opposition to grow.
The vote was not a partisan one, however. A House Democrat sponsored the repeal and 56 party members voted for it. There were 130 Democrats voting against it.
The Republican vote was 183 for repeal, 42 against.
In a written statement Friday, Vice President Gore called the repeal an “IOU to the NRA,” and promised “it will not stand.”
Morella, 52, said she too believed the gun lobby was the only reason the House moved to lift the ban.
“These people know it’s not going to pass [into law]. Why are they doing this now? They’re doing it because the NRA has a convention coming up,” she said. Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer of Mitchellville and Albert Wynn of Largo voted to keep the ban in place. -30-