The gun debate: In Howard County, a growing chorus for stricter controls

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

MaryAnn Kinsella-Meier sat in Columbia’s Owen Brown Interfaith Center on Monday night at her first Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America meeting.

Kinsell-Meier, who lives in Highland, said she’s “liked” the gun-safety advocacy group’s Facebook page for years, but after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17, it was time to do more.

“We’ve got to make change happen,” Kinesell-Meier, 61, said. “I’m really fed up.”

More than 200 people gathered to hear from Howard County chapter leaders discuss the group’s mission and plans for the months ahead, including near daily advocacy in the state legislature in Annapolis.

At the group’s last meetup in February, county chapter leader Nicole Berger said there were about 30 people.

“Complacency is no longer the answer,” Berger said to the crowd.

In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, gun safety activists in Howard and across the country have revved up efforts with meetings, marches and calls for legislative change. Students at county schools are taking part in marches and rallies today.

Howard’s chapter of Moms Demand Action is focused on Howard County Democrat Del. Vanessa Atterbeary’s bill in the General Assembly to force those convicted of domestic violence to surrender their firearms. The bill on Monday cleared the House Judiciary Committee 15-2 and appears headed to a conference committee to reconcile differences with a similar bill approved by the Senate.

Howard County Sheriff Bill McMahon was at Monday’s meeting to show support for Atterbeary’s bill because of its relation to the domestic violence response work done by the sheriff’s office. McMahon called the energy and number of people present at the meeting “amazing.”

The last time residents debated gun control in Howard County was in 2015 when County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, signed a law banning firearms from county property. Now the debate is back and growing.

The issue has left some gun owners, including Chad Fox, owner of Fox’s Firearms in Columbia, more wary. Fox said there’s been an uptick in gun sales at the shop in the weeks since Parkland, driven by renewed fears from firearm owners that the government is coming to take their guns.

“Every time something happens, everything gets blown out in all different directions. So when people start putting out opinions, [owners] start thinking, ‘Do we have to turn these in?’” Fox said. “If you felt like there was something you wanted and wouldn’t be able to get it anymore, wouldn’t you go buy it? There’s not a whole lot else you can do.”

Fox said he didn’t have specific data on increases in sales, but that based on his inventory he had sold more guns, though he said there was not a specific type in particular demand. The “fear-driven” demand, Fox said, is in large part because of the hyper-focus on gun control coming from the media in recent weeks.

Howard County Rifle and Pistol Club president Gary Clark, 64, has been a member of the club for over 10 years and said while there’s been a slight increase in membership during that time, growing from about 110 members to nearly 150, there hasn’t been a change since the Parkland shooting.

The gun club meets monthly at the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore gun range in Marriottsville to shoot, rotating between pistols, rifles and trap shooting. Clark said the club includes two main types of members, those who enjoy target and trap shooting and those who hunt. Joining the club is not easy. Potential members must attend two meetings and then review gun safety with a registered National Rifle Association instructor in the club.

“[We’re] pretty stringent, we don’t let just anybody join,” Clark said. “You have to come out and shoot with us twice, we want to make sure you’re not a lunatic [and that] you can handle fire safety.”

Clark, a lifelong gun owner, has been a gun dealer for the past four years, one of a handful in the county. As of November 2017, there were 17 licensed gun dealers in Howard County, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaccos, Firearms and Explosives.

Tim Eakle owns Eakle Firearms Inc. in Ellicott City and said that unlike Fox, the recent conversations haven’t made a difference in his business.

Dealers in the county were wary of speaking to a reporter for this story, Fox and Eakle declined to have photos taken of their shops out of concern for security. Two other shops, Fulton Armory in Fulton and 2A Sales and Supplies in Jessup declined to comment. Columbia dealer Jeff Underwood, who owns UNcommon Arms, declined to disclose information about his sales.

When it comes to possible new gun restrictions, dealers in the county varied on what they thought should change. Eakle, who focuses most of his business on gun transfers rather than sales, said he believes an age restriction on guns could be a smart way to keep them in safer hands. He does not sell to anyone under 21.

“You gotta have some sort of age break. I see too many 18, 19-year-olds, they just don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

Others, such as Underwood, aren’t keen on adding restrictions to gun owners. Underwood, who owns a gun dealer that serves a small number of clientele, most of whom he said he’s known for years, said that he will sell to those under 21 if they are with a parent or are in the military. He uses his best judgment to determine if a client is fit to own a gun and will typically spend about an hour getting to know a new client.

“I can get a feeling about someone. I look for personal red flags, whether they’re sincere, honest [or] lying,” Underwood, who’s been in business for 38 years, said.

Maryland does not allow the sale of assault-style rifles and requires a state police-issued permit for handgun purchases. Handgun buyers must be at least 21.

The focus in Maryland and across the country needs to be not on gun control, Underwood said, but on crime prevention. The gun control debate, often seen as a politically divisive issue with Democrats in favor of greater restrictions, has led to the misrepresentation of gun owners in the county, he said.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 69 percent of county voters cast ballots for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was in favor of expanded background checks on buyers and an assault weapons ban.

“We don’t want to be scapegoated,” Underwood said. “I understand Howard County is majority anti-gun and that’s unfortunate. We should be anti-criminal, not anti-gun.”

Fox said despite the renewed calls for change, he’s not expecting much; talk surrounding gun control after a shooting only lasts until “something else steals the spotlight.”

“If those we’ve elected tend to do what they don’t typically do, and that’s dialogue, then I see change for the positive,” Fox said. “But I think it’s all about dialogue. Everybody has to be open and everybody has to give up concessions.”

There has never been a mass shooting at a school in Howard County. In January 2014, a gunman killed two employees at the Zumiez skate shop at the Mall in Columbia, one of the county’s most noteworthy gun violence incidents.

“I don’t think Howard County is a big problem, but of course that’d be like trying to predict the future,” Fox said.

Planning for the next steps was on Kinsell-Meier’s mind at the end of this week’s Moms Demand Action meeting. She now plans to participate in the June 2 National Gun Violence Awareness Day by wearing orange and she wants to get involved with the group’s gun storage safety outreach work.

“Awesome,” was how Kinsella-Meier described the meeting. “I’m glad there’s action.”

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of MaryAnn Kinsella-Meier.

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