Advertisements praising Maryland's new gun control law will appear on Baltimore-area televisions soon after the measure is signed Thursday — the first volley in a two-pronged effort to defend the legislation and the politicians who voted for it.
The gun control advocates behind the ads want to bolster support among Maryland voters in case there's a referendum next year. But they also want to counter a campaign to oust lawmakers who backed the bill in the General Assembly.
"We know that the other side will be attacking the legislators who voted for it, and we want people to know those legislators were doing the right thing to save lives in Maryland," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. He declined to say how much the group is spending on the ads, which will begin airing within days.
Gun rights groups have targeted a handful of races and are raising money to defeat incumbents, some of whom are courting new constituents in their redrawn legislative districts. A new political action committee, Take Back Maryland, raised tens of thousands of dollars in just two weeks, with donors averaging $150 per person, treasurer David Ridgway said.
"We'll do whatever is necessary to get the job done," Ridgway said.
The law, introduced by Gov. Martin O'Malley after the Newtown, Conn., shooting, drew headlines for banning the sale of assault weapons and limiting magazines to 10 bullets. But it also requires handgun purchasers to submit fingerprints and get a license. And it creates penalties for people who don't notify police when their firearms are lost or stolen. O'Malley, a Democrat, is scheduled to sign the bill Thursday morning.
While polls show broad statewide support for an assault weapons ban and handgun licensing, leaders of at least two Maryland jurisdictions — Harford and Cecil counties — have passed resolutions criticizing the new law.
The National Rifle Association has declined to back an effort to overturn the law in a November 2014 referendum, instead promising to fight the measure in court as unconstitutional. An NRA spokeswoman would not say Wednesday when the organization would file its legal challenge.
Maryland's gun community, meanwhile, has vowed to fight politicians at the ballot box. Similar efforts to defeat politicians who backed gun control have had success elsewhere, but political observers questioned whether they will in Maryland.
The NRA's threats "scared the pants off Congress," said Donald Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
"Whether that will work in Maryland, I'm not so sure," Norris said. "My gut tells me no. They might be able to knock off a few people, but I think it's very much a long shot."
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said most lawmakers who supported the legislation come from districts where their constituents share that view.
"There are a lot single-issue voters on gun rights, but they're not in Central Maryland," where many of the law's legislative supporters are based, Crenson said.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, had been identified by the NRA as a potential ally, but he ultimately voted for the gun bill. This week, he said he couldn't name five constituents in his old district who own an assault rifle. In his new district, he said, more than 100 people have told him they own such guns.
He said he's aware that people who describe themselves as Second Amendment supporters have begun a campaign against him, but he doubts that gun control is a top issue for most in his district. Brochin said he's heard more concern about his vote in favor of Chesapeake Bay cleanup fee derided as a "rain tax." He said he also gets questions about social issues.
"I've had people ask me about abortion and this or that, but not one person — not one — has asked me about my gun vote," Brochin said. Gun rights activists are "trying to make this an issue," he said.
Ridgway and others plan an outreach campaign of their own, highlighting lawmakers who voted against an amendment that would have prohibited early release for people convicted of gun crimes.
The gun control bill "is not about safety, whatsoever," Ridgway said.
The Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore authorized putting up $50,000 to help the campaign get started, but legislative vice president John Josselyn said the quick fundraising pace "made it clear we didn't need it."
Meanwhile, Montgomery County resident Sue Payne said her a petition drive to put the law to a 2014 referendum vote has taken off. Payne said volunteers will blanket the Preakness this weekend and have sought signatures from Orioles fans at games. She said the owners of hair salons, car repair shops and bars have offered to collect signatures from patrons.
Her group, Free State Petitions, must collect 55,736 valid signatures by June 30 — the first third of them by May 31. "Everyone's come out of the woodwork," Payne said, adding that she has a monumental task ahead. "We're doing this on a wing and prayer."
Even without a referendum to fend off, gun control advocates say they hope ads extolling the benefits of the gun law will sustain support for it in Maryland. And that could help sell the idea in other states, they say.
Brian Malte, policy director at the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, said Maryland is the first state in decades to enact handgun licensing, so the law can serve as blueprint for other states. Maintaining public support in Maryland helps the sales pitch, he said.
"Rumors swirl about what the law is and what the law isn't," Malte said. "The more the public hears about it, the more they understand."
Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said his constituents keep asking what exactly the gun bill does, since the mammoth legislation touches on everything from "cop-killing" bullets and the mentally ill to firearms training and gun ownership in obscure circumstances.
"There was a lot in there, and it probably would be easier to explain what we did if it was broken up into pieces," Zirkin said. "Most people associate the bill with an assault weapons ban. They get the bumper sticker version."
Zirkin said he tries to explain the law as a way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, but the 62-page bill has a lot of moving parts.
"It's long conversation," he said.
The gun law
The new gun bill will be the first of hundreds Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign at a ceremony Thursday. Key provisions of the 62-page law include:
•A ban on the sale of 45 types of assault weapons and their copycats.
•A ban on sales of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
•A fingerprinting and licensing requirement for handgun buyers.
•A 4-hour training requirement for first-time handgun buyers.
•A ban on gun ownership for anyone involuntarily committed to a mental heath facility, as well as those voluntarily committed for more than 30 days.
•An exemption of gun ownership and sales from public records laws.
•Penalties for people who fail to tell police their guns are lost or stolen.
•A ban on the sale of so-called "cop-killing" bullets.
•An expansion of who is barred from gun ownership to include people a judge deemed criminally insane or not criminally responsible, as well as people given a probation-before-judgment sentence in violent crimes.