The House of Delegates voted Wednesday to give Maryland one of the toughest gun laws in the nation, passing a bill that would ban the sale of assault-type weapons, set a 10-bullet limit on magazines and require fingerprints and a license to buy a handgun.
Delegates altered the Senate's bill during more than 10 hours of emotional floor debate that lasted over two days. Key lawmakers said they expect the differences to be resolved quickly and the legislation sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his promised signature.
After the 78-61 vote, O'Malley said the House strengthened his proposal, which he has called his top legislative priority of the session.
"Maryland has stood up as a state to say that this is not acceptable and that military assault weapons have no place in a civil society," O'Malley said.
The bill would be among the most restrictive gun measures passed by a state legislature since lawmakers across the country began considering new laws in the wake of the December shooting that killed 27 at a Connecticut elementary school. Maryland's move to stricter gun laws comes as federal efforts have stalled.
Once the measure is signed into law, Maryland would become one of five states to require a license and training to buy a handgun. It would be one of a handful of states that ban the sale of military-style assault rifles. Gun owners would be required to report lost weapons to police.
State police would be empowered to audit gun dealers. More information about the mentally ill would be sent to a national database for background checks, and the state would disqualify more people from gun ownership based on mental illness or the commission of a violent crime.
The legislation represents the first significant change to Maryland's gun laws in nearly two decades.
"It was a very emotional issue — it polarized a lot of people," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said after the debate, noting that support came from urban areas. "Licensure and fingerprinting stop straw purchases and keep handguns off the street."
Busch and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who shepherded the proposal through his chamber in February, said the Senate probably would adopt the House changes.
"It's a bill that will save lives," Frosh said. "It will prevent gun violence, and it'll keep guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous, either by virtue of their criminality or because of their disturbed state of mind."
Republicans and conservative Democrats in rural areas mounted the most opposition to the Maryland measure, calling it an infringement on Second Amendment rights and a punishment of law-abiding citizens. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell criticized the bill as hastily crafted and pushed through the General Assembly to advance O'Malley's potential presidential bid.
"This is a sham job on the citizens of Maryland so that the governor can punch his national ticket," the Republican from Southern Maryland said.
The National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist in Annapolis predicted political backlash at the ballot box for lawmakers who supported the bill, pointing to the thousands of gun-rights supporters who several times came to Annapolis to voice their outrage.
"They've awoken a sleeping giant," said NRA lobbyist Shannon Alford.
From the floor, Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, lamented that he and his city colleagues have to put funerals on their calendars as he argued that the bill would limit gun violence.
"We don't have the need for an assault rifle in the city of Baltimore," Branch said. "I want decent people, real people and honest people to operate and have a handgun. ... I don't want drug dealers or individuals who want to do this tomfoolery, who go out there and do things with guns, killing people."
A key provision in both bills would require handgun purchasers to undergo training, submit fingerprints and get a state license. Supporters say that would significantly reduce straw purchases, in which someone buys a gun on behalf of another with a criminal record. Opponents say citizens should not be required to get a license to exercise a constitutionally protected right.
The House adopted a narrower definition of an assault weapon than did the Senate, a change that some gun-control supporters fear could allow some future models to escape the ban. The House also would ban "cop-killing" bullets.
The two chambers take a different approach about when to bar gun ownership for mental health patients who voluntarily seek care.
The Senate would prohibit gun ownership for patients voluntarily admitted to psychiatric care as the result of an emergency petition — which lawmakers said suggests that the patients are a danger to themselves or others. The House endorsed the state's current standard, which bars people who have been admitted voluntarily for 30 days or more.
Both versions prohibit gun ownership for people a judge determines to be mentally incompetent, as well as for patients involuntarily committed. Both chambers have also endorsed sending more mental health information to a national database used for gun background checks.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, vowed to mobilize the bill's opponents to petition the law onto the ballot, which would delay its effect for a year until a vote is held, and to raise money to challenge politicians who voted for it.
"The people will have their choice in the referendum of 2014," he said.
Should they have that choice, Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's Democrat, said public opinion is on the majority's side.
"These aren't toys. They kill people," Davis said. "I hope there is a mobilization and this bill gets on the ballot. And then once again this General Assembly will be upheld for representing the views of the people."
Gun-control advocates called Wednesday's vote "historic" and said Maryland's action would inspire other states to act.
"In the post-Newtown era, everyone is looking for tools that work," said Vincent DeMarco, head of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. "Maryland is providing those tools."
Two other states have tightened gun laws since the Newtown shooting, and Connecticut lawmakers on Wednesday debated an overhaul of that state's gun laws.
The Connecticut proposal, released by a bipartisan task force Monday, would expand the state's handgun licensing laws to include shotguns and rifles, require background checks on more types of sales, put 100 guns on Connecticut's list of banned assault-type weapons, ban armor-piercing bullets and limit magazines to 10 bullets.
In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a pair of bills last month that limit magazines to 15 bullets and require background checks for certain sales previously excluded under Colorado laws.
In January, New York further reduced its magazine limit, dropping it from 10 bullets to seven, and broadened the types of guns covered by the state's assault weapons ban. Even before the changes, New York had some of the country's toughest gun laws.
Congressional leaders have backed away from pushing a federal assault weapons ban to replace one that expired in 2004. President Barack Obama went to Colorado on Wednesday to press his case for universal background checks, a federal assault weapons ban and a nationwide limit on high-capacity magazines.
A previous version of this story gave the wrong name for the organization headed by Vincent DeMarco. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun