By LUCAS HIGH and ALLEN ETZLER
ANNAPOLIS – The Senate approved a series of amendments Wednesday to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun control legislation that would ease some of the proposed restrictions on gun ownership while maintaining the major aspects of the bill.
The Senate heard amendments to the bill until 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. A final vote on the bill in the Senate is expected at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Among the changes to O’Malley’s proposal, the amended bill narrows the definition of what constitutes an assault weapon, doubles the lifespan of a valid handgun license and reduces both the number of hours of training and the licensing fee required to purchase a handgun.
The bill also clarifies which people who seek mental health services are disqualified from owning a gun. Despite the changes, conservative members of the Senate continued to express their opposition to the Firearm Safety Act of 2013.
Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which approved the bill after a marathon debating session last week, called the legislation “fatally flawed.”
Republicans repeatedly criticized the legislative package for overreaching and addressing issues that would be better served in separate bills.
“The more restrictions we put on law abiding citizens with this bill, the better we’re supposed to feel?” Sen E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, asked rhetorically, urging his fellow senators to reject the bill.
But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, one of the bill’s sponsors, went on the offensive and suggested that by voting to reject the bill the opposition demonstrated that it would rather “kick the can down the road” than address the complex issue of firearm accessibility.
The Senate came close to stripping the bill of one of its most controversial provisions — requiring all handgun purchasers to submit digital fingerprints prior to receiving a handgun license.
The amendment failed despite claims from its sponsor, Shank, that the fingerprinting requirement is an “unconstitutional restriction of the people’s rights.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, voted with Senate Republicans in favor of eliminating the fingerprinting provision.
“Step by step, we are gradually eroding a fundamental right,” Shank said.
The Senate also voted to approve an amendment that would expand mental health restrictions to unregulated firearms such as rifles and shotguns. In previous versions of the bill, patients who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility were only prohibited from purchasing regulated firearms like handguns.
Pipkin objected to expanding the restrictions to unregulated firearms.
“I don’t think we fully understand the ramifications (of adding legislation that would impact one’s ability to purchase a shotgun or rifle),” Pipkin said.
While senators from both political parties did not agree on much Wednesday, they overwhelmingly passed an amendment regarding the mental health aspect of the bill.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, sponsored an amendment that struck from the bill the disqualification from owning a firearm if someone is voluntarily admitted to a mental health facility for 30 days. Zirkin instead replaced that disqualification with one that says if a person receives an emergency petition to enter emergency care, and the doctor deems that person as dangerous, he or she will be disqualified from owning a handgun.