Gov. Martin O'Malley on Friday proposed restricting mental health patients' access to firearms as part of a broad gun-control package and called for expanding early voting to ease long lines on Election Day.
The governor, in releasing his full legislative agenda in Annapolis, also announced plans to push for funding of more digital classrooms and measures to help veterans get jobs in the civilian workforce.
O'Malley's legislative ambitions are expected to stretch political will in Annapolis and draw national attention to the two-term Democrat, who is widely believed to be contemplating a presidential bid. In the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, he declared the gun-control package his "top priority."
"Life is valuable. Every life is needed," O'Malley said. "This isn't about ideology, it is about the value of every human being."
This year's 90-day session represents the governor's best chance to get significant legislation passed before lawmakers become engulfed in next year's election cycle. O'Malley, who is term-limited, earlier rolled out another piece of his agenda to repeal the death penalty and next week is expected to offer details of legislation to create a wind-energy project off Maryland's shores.
O'Malley's gun-control package, which comes as other governors and President Barack Obama are advancing similar ideas, calls for an assault weapons ban, a 10-round limit on magazines, licensing of all handgun buyers, strengthening the state's response to mental health crises and the biggest expansion of the Maryland State Police in 15 years. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, considered a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2014, plans to travel the state to help sell the plan.
The gun licensing provision drew immediate criticism from Republicans but also from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. The Democrat, who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties, said it could "jeopardize" the assault weapons ban and other gun initiatives O'Malley hopes to push through the General Assembly.
"You have to have a license to drive a car, but the Constitution doesn't deal with driving a car," Miller said, turning around an argument used by licensing proponents including the governor and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.
"It's very important for citizens to have the right to bear arms," Miller said. "If you're licensing something, you have the right to take that license away."
As the governor made his announcement, a handful of Republican lawmakers watched from the edge of the crowd. "I was just sitting here watching the Second Amendment go down in flames," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. of the Upper Shore. "All of these laws that are proposed would only affect law-abiding citizens."
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, also of the Upper Shore, criticized the cost and inconvenience of the licensing plan, saying it would force prospective gun buyers to take time off work. "It discriminates against the working poor in this state, and only the rich people will have guns," he said.
Republicans also objected to the governor's early-voting proposal. Motivated by long lines seen before Election Day in November, O'Malley suggested extra voting sites throughout the state and extended hours. The plan also would allow voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day at early voting sites — a provision that drew warnings of potential voter fraud.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County, who said he was open to discussing expanded early voting, flatly rejected the idea of same-day registration.
"I think it's ripe for gaming the system," he said. "It's a horrible idea."
The early-voting plan would add three more voting sites to five currently located in Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, the state's largest. It would add two sites each in Frederick and Harford counties, which both have one now. Other jurisdictions would remain the same. O'Malley also is seeking to make it easier to obtain an absentee ballot.
"In our state, we believe the more people voting, the stronger that makes our democracy," O'Malley said, calling the early-voting program "popular and well-received."
O'Malley's office said his proposed legislation on veterans removes obstacles service members often face when moving from military service to the civilian workforce. It also expedites occupational and professional licensing for military spouses when their families move to Maryland.
In education, O'Malley's budget creates a Digital Learning Innovation Fund to help local school districts make better use of technology in the classroom. The state education department would award grants to the districts that submit the best plans.
But the proposed gun-control measures have garnered the most attention.
No one could get a handgun license without paying $100 fee, giving fingerprints to the Maryland State Police, completing at least an eight-hour training course and undergoing a background check more thorough than those done today. The handgun licenses — one would be required for each purchase — would expire after five years.
The proposal also would clarify age restrictions on gun ownership, specifying that residents must be at least 21 years old to own a gun. According to O'Malley's office, there are conflicting provisions in Maryland law about age restrictions.
In an effort to limit gun access for people with mental illness and a history of violence, O'Malley proposed adding more health records to the database used for background checks. People who are civilly committed or deemed mentally incompetent by a judge could be more easily denied a gun.
The legislative package also sets aside $400,000 for the state police to automate its background check system for gun purchases and calls for adding 160 troopers to the 1,450-member force.
In addition, the governor provided details of his plan to strengthen the state's mental health system. They include encouraging early interventions for child and adolescent patients, bolstering the ability of police and crisis management teams to handle mental illness in the field, and improving the continuity of care for psychiatric patients as they move between clinical and community settings.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the state's health secretary, said many proposals have the same theme: Finding ways to make mental health providers the first line of defense for crises now handled by police. Sharfstein said that the goal was to avoid policies that would scare psychiatric patients and make them less inclined to seek help.
Mental health advocates and psychiatrists in the state expressed support for many of the proposals, saying the state's mental health system needs a funding boost after years of diminishing budgets. Others expressed misgivings that the package appears to link mental illness with gun violence — a link they say is not backed by research.
"I'm just cringing," said Laura Cain, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center. "There's already such a tremendous amount of stigma. … The risk is cementing that image, and you're never going to be able to undo that."
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun