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Gun bill debates draw hundreds to Maryland General Assembly

Hundreds debate merits of gun control bills at General Assembly.

Hundreds of people arrived in Annapolis on Wednesday to debate whether Maryland's already strict gun laws should go further in restricting access to firearms — or if they go too far already.

The legislature is weighing more than a dozen gun control proposals that advocates say would close deadly loopholes and opponents contend would further infringe on their Second Amendment rights without making the public any safer.

More than 400 people signed up to testify — which, given the 90 seconds allotted to each person, amounted to 10 hours of testimony — before a Senate committee considering proposals including a ban on gun sales to people on no-fly lists and confiscating firearms from people convicted of domestic violence.

People on both sides acknowledge that the bills, if passed, offer only modest changes to the state's complicated gun laws. But the debate itself could have significant political implications and force a confrontation between the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Hogan, who had never held elected office before being he was inaugurated governor in 2015, has made broad statements about supporting Second Amendment rights. But he has never had to take a position on a specific proposal.

The debate drew an appearance from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat running for the U.S. Senate.

"It makes no sense that in this country we say you're too dangerous to board an airplane but you can go down the street and buy a semiautomatic weapon," he said.

Hogan has dismissed Van Hollen's call to ban gun purchases from people on terrorist watch lists because the Maryland State Police, which processes gun licenses, already screen for it.

Democratic leaders identified a handful of proposals, including the no-fly list prohibition and a ban on guns on public college campuses, as priorities for the legislature.

"We're endorsing some very modest proposals," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Miller is a gun owner who has never before sponsored gun control legislation.

"Guns need to be used in a safe and sane manner," he said.

Gun rights groups, including Maryland Shall Issue, encouraged their members to show up for committee hearings, and many gun advocates wore bright orange stickers reading "Guns save lives."

Meanwhile, women wearing T-shirts from a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America filled Lawyers Mall for a gun control rally and filled chairs in the hearing room.

The crowd spilled out into an overflow room. People on both sides were passionate about their positions, but the day lacked the intensity of three years ago, when thousands descended on Annapolis to testify on a sweeping ban on the sale of assault weapons.

Proponents of the ban on guns on the state's university campuses say it would simply put current practice into law. Violators would be subject to up to a three-year prison sentence and a $1,000 fine.

Members of the House of Delegates spent more than an hour debating the bill Wednesday morning. The chamber rejected five Republican amendments before postponing a vote until later in the week.

House Majority Leader Anne Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the amendments all "seek to gut the intent of the bill," which is to ensure campuses are safe.

Some delegates invoked mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College in Oregon to argue that people should be allowed to carry guns on campus to protect themselves. Others said female students being stalked should have the right to carry a gun for self-defense.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said it's a myth that people at college need firearms for protection, given that more women are killed by handguns than women who fend off attackers with them. He said there is no evidence that mass shootings have been stopped by armed students.

"The idea that there's going to be a gunfight and you're going to save the day? That isn't our history," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

David B. Mitchell, chief of the University of Maryland, College Park police force, said the campus gun ban is necessary for student safety. He said the bill has provisions to exempt lawful uses of guns, such as for members of the National Guard and the student skeet-shooting club.

"What this does is strengthen our policy and give it the force of law," he said.

Wednesday's hearings drew people who wanted to testify on all types of gun-related bills.

Charles Guggenheimer drove to Annapolis from Red Lion, Pa., to speak in favor of a bill that would require Maryland to recognize handgun carry permits issued to gun owners by Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Currently, gun owners from other states must go through Maryland's notoriously tough process to get a carry permit.

Guggenheimer said he moved from Baltimore County to Pennsylvania in 2007 and returns frequently.

"I would still be able to come visit my family and not leave my gun at the border," he said.

Robert Heede of Parkville was interested in a bill that would ban toy guns that look like real guns.

"I'm a legal gun owner, but I would become a criminal because I have a pellet gun," he said. "I have a grandson that I may want to teach to shoot with it."

To Heede, the legislation would take gun control too far.

"I agree there needs to be common sense," he said. "But there needs to be constitutional sense."

Sen. Jamie Raskin sponsored three gun control bills that were considered Wednesday by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The Montgomery County Democrat was asked how many gun laws are too many.

"We'll stop as soon as Maryland is safe from gun violence," he said.

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