A group of lawmakers charged with hammering out a compromise on a bill to ban the carrying of guns on college campuses deadlocked Monday over whether to make a violation of the law a criminal offense or a civil one.
The measure is the most significant gun-control proposal that the General Assembly has taken up this year. But a conference committee of three senators and three delegates failed to agree after a brief meeting on Monday. The negotiators later arrived at a deal but with did not have time to bring the measure to final votes on the floor.
A conference committee is appointed when the two chambers can't agree on a bill and they have broad authority to make changes to legislation. The committee appointed to handle the campus gun bill gathered in the sumptuous Senate lounge to try to thrash out a final deal.
Del. Ben Barnes, a Prince George's County Democrat whose district includes the University of Maryland, College Park, told the conferees that the final proposal would reduce the maximum criminal sentence from three years in prison to 18 months, meaning a violation would not end in someone losing their right to own a gun. It also would require that prosecutors show someone knowingly violated the law and includes a carve out for parts of Western Maryland, Barnes said.
Making a violation a civil offense, Barnes said, "creates a two tier system in our gun laws that is completely untenable."
But Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is weighing a run for county executive, initially said there was no way he could support a criminal penalty.
"They would hang me," Brochin said of some of his constituents. "There's nothing I can do."
Brochin then floated the idea of having a tiered system with a criminal penalty kicking in on a third offense, but Barnes said that would not be acceptable to the House.
With the two Republicans on the conference committee not persuadable, Barnes said Brochin would be to blame if the bill ultimately failed: "Jim signs it it's done," he said. "If he doesn't, it's dead."
Brochin later said he had agreed to make a second offense a crime.