As momentum builds for a statewide assault weapons ban to replace a federal one that is expiring, all eyes are on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who voted against the federal law while in Congress.
Ehrlich said yesterday that he hasn't taken a position on legislation introduced in the Senate by Montgomery County Sen. Robert J. Garagiola and being prepared in the House by Del. Neil F. Quinter, that would expand the state's 1994 ban on assault pistols to include assault rifles and weapons that share their characteristics. The bills have attracted 69 co-sponsors.
The issue places Ehrlich in an unenviable position: Backing the ban would be a reversal of his previous positions on the issue and a source of consternation for his rural and conservative constituents, who were hoping the state would shed its anti-gun reputation.
But if he opposes it - while memories of the sniper shootings and trials are still fresh in Marylanders' minds - the move could expose an Achilles' heel of his carefully tended image as a moderate Republican.
"Politically, it's going to be very difficult for him to walk away from his conservative base on this," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"And if he reverses his position in this state, I am not sure that it does him a lot of good with the gun-control crowd because they tend not to be inclined to vote for conservative Republicans. I can't imagine Montgomery County going for Ehrlich just because of one vote on assault weapons," Norris said.
Yesterday, Ehrlich straddled the fence while voicing doubts that a ban would lower crime in a state whose largest city remains one of the country's most violent. Proven strategies are the only cure, he said.
"We devote our time, money, energy and resources to things that work - not things that sound politically correct," the governor said.
As a state delegate, Ehrlich voted in 1994 to keep Maryland from becoming one of a handful of states with some sort of military weapons ban. As a freshman congressman, he voted with other Republican lawmakers in a failed effort to repeal the federal assault weapons ban in 1996.
The proposed state ban would grandfather in legally registered firearms covered by the new law, while prohibiting new sales or registrations of 45 named guns.
In addition, the state Handgun Roster Board, which tracks newly manufactured pistols and adds those that match characteristics of previously banned assault handguns to the state's list of prohibited weapons, would also monitor copycat assault rifles. And a provision of the bill allows Maryland dealers who have stocks of the banned firearms on Sept. 14 to sell their supply.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, backs the legislation -- despite reservations about the dealer provision.
"That's nothing I would want to see in a perfect bill," Frosh said. "Still, when you boil it all down, the ban becomes for me an issue of common sense. I mean, there are plenty of ways you can bring down a deer and defend yourself without these rifles."
The Maryland bills come as states across the country scramble to create new law before the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons, which the Republican-controlled Congress appears unlikely to renew, expires on Sept. 13, 2004.
"I don't think that anybody wants to see these guns back on the street after the ban expires," Garagiola said.
Lawmakers noted specific instances to buttress their point: the 1989 Stockton, Calif., school shootings that left five children dead and 39 wounded; Columbine, Colo., where a pair of students killed 13 and wounded 20; and the 2002 D.C.-area sniper shootings that injured three and killed 10, six of them in Maryland.
Convicted snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo used a Bushmaster AR-15, a civilian version of the M-16, during the shootings.
The weapon, a modified semiautomatic assault rifle, isn't specifically covered by the current federal law but is named among the 45 semiautomatic rifles that could be banned in Maryland.
"All this bill does is to extend it to the big guys, the assault rifles," said Leah Barrett, spokeswoman for CeaseFire Maryland, a gun-control group.
"Of course the gun nuts are saying, 'slippery slope' and all that. But the sniper used this Bushmaster AR-15, and these weapons are designed to instill fear," Barrett said.
But voices on the other side pointed out that the sniper shootings were the result of a gunman's aimed shot rather than a barrage of fire.
"What those people did with that firearm they could have done with any other type of rifle," said John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, which represents 26 clubs and about 4,500 gun owners in Central Maryland.
Sonia Wills, whose son Conrad Johnson became the snipers' final victim, now sits on Ceasefire's board of directors.
"We do need to have these weapons banned, and considering what's happened to my son, I've taken a deep interest in this issue," she said yesterday. "I knew I had to try to make a difference."
Josselyn vowed to do the same, noting a public relations push that gun advocates directed at former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. in retaliation for his stance on gun locks. "He'd been in for 28 years, and we got him out."
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.