ANNAPOLIS- For the third straight year following the lapse of a federal assault weapons ban, Maryland legislators are once again are faced with deciding whether to make it illegal to own, buy or sell specific types of semiautomatic rifles and shotguns.
And once again, the bill faces an uphill battle. Legislators, mindful of the political strength of gun owners, seem particularly hesitant to make any significant changes to the state’s gun laws in an election year.
At a raucous House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Delegate Neil F. Quinter, D-Howard, who introduced the bill to ban the guns and has introduced a similar bill every year since he joined the House of Delegates in 2003, questioned the need for rifles with military-style attachments.
“None of these features is very useful for killing a deer,” he said. “These are weapons that were designed to kill large numbers of human beings at once.”
Owners of assault weapons say they use them for target shooting and marksmanship competitions.
Members of the mostly pro-gun audience grumbled and voiced dissent as Quinter and representatives of gun control advocacy groups spoke before the committee. At one point during the hearing, Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, the committee’s co-chairman, admonished the audience to be respectful and wait their turn to speak.
Quinter’s bill would bar Marylanders from owning, buying, selling or receiving any of 45 specific semiautomatic rifles, shotguns or “copycat” weapons, which the bill defines as a rifle or shotgun with a detachable magazine and that can accept a pistol grip, a flash suppressor, a grenade or fire launcher, or a folding stock for easier concealment.
A federal ban on 19 semiautomatic assault weapons lapsed in Sept. 2004.
None of Quinter’s previous assault weapon bills have made it out of the committee – they have either been withdrawn or never come up for a vote.
In an interview, Quinter said that he has the votes to pass the committee this year – if the committee votes on it.
But Delegate Theodore J. Sophocleus, D-Anne Arundel, said that the silence of most law enforcement agencies “triggers a problem” for the bill. Only the Montgomery County Police and Maryland State Police publicly stated positions – for and against, respectively.
As for the bill’s chances, “It’s tenuous,” Sophocleus said.
The state police, in written testimony, said they oppose the bill because there is not sufficient statistical evidence to show that assault rifles and shotguns are frequently used in violent crimes.
The head of the state police is appointed by the governor. Governor Robert L. Ehrlich’s spokesman, Henry P. Fawell, said in an interview that the governor does not think the legislation promotes gun safety or punishes criminals.
Still, there is some evidence that the issue may surface during the coming gubernatorial election. Both leading Democratic candidates, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, favor the legislation.
Duncan appeared at the hearing Wednesday, reminding the committee of the sniper attacks that gripped the Washington suburbs in October 2002.
“I urge you all not to forget the 10 innocent people who were killed in the sniper attacks,” he said.
Delegate Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, asked Duncan if this bill would apply to the snipers, since their weapons were stolen from a gun store.
“If these guns aren’t for sale in Maryland, they can’t break into a gun store and steal them,” Duncan said.
Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, questioned whether the ban would cause a significant change, since the snipers attacked using only single shots rather than the multiple blasts a semiautomatic weapon would allow.
Though Quinter contended that the weapons the bill prohibits have a “complete lack of legitimate use unless you’re in the army,” gun rights advocates argued that there is indeed a sporting use for the guns in the bill.
“There are multiple shooting disciplines that require certain types of firearms that would be banned under this bill,” Donald Hoffman, who represents a gun owners rights group called Maryland Shall Issue, said in an interview.
In particular, Hoffman said, a series of competitions sponsored by the national Civilian Marksmanship Program uses only semiautomatic, military-style weapons.
“It’s marksmanship and citizenship,” he said. During the federal ban, clubs which took part in the competition used guns and ammunition they already owned or acquired through military surplus, but could not buy new ones, Hoffman said.