By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun
9:39 PM EDT, March 29, 2013
Gov. Martin O'Malley's sweeping gun control bill cleared a major hurdle Friday night as two committees sent a ban on assault-style weapons and a new handgun licensing scheme to the House floor.
The central pieces of the governor's bill, already approved by the Maryland Senate, survived despite multiple amendments during a marathon eight-hour joint committee voting session that stretched late into Friday night.
Led by Republicans, gun control opponents tried unsuccessfully to strip fingerprinting provisions and shooting proficiency requirements from the handgun licensing plan. They also failed to exempt handguns from the 10-bullet magazine limit, among other unsuccessful attempts to weaken the bill.
Instead, the panel passed new rules that would create penalties for not reporting a stolen gun and bar gun ownership when people are given probation before judgment in violent crimes.
Proponents called the bill a tougher measure than the version the Senate approved, even though the House version rolled back how some provisions apply to existing gun owners. Current gun owners would not have to register their assault weapons or undergo training if they want to buy a handgun.
A joint session of the House Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees voted 27-18 to approve the amended bill.
"The changes that they made only made it stronger," said Vincent DeMarco, head of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence.
The National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Annapolis saw some victories in the changes, but said, "At the end of the day, they just passed a gun ban."
Under the new version, gun dealers would be allowed to sell their existing inventory of assault-style rifles after the ban took effect Oct. 1. Marylanders who placed orders for the guns before then could legally own them.
Del. Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, predicted that those moves, along with an existing spike in gun sales, would leave Maryland "armed to the teeth" before the ban could take effect. "We're going to flood the state with assault weapons and then declare victory," Simmons said.
The ban on the sale of assault-style rifles, the 10-bullet limit to magazines and a plan to require fingerprints and a license to buy a handgun were unchanged by the two House committees, which waited more than a month to act on the plan.
Del. Michael Smigiel's effort to turn the entire bill into a task force to study assault weapons failed. "We're going to be back in here next year and the year after trying to fix the damage that we're doing," said Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican and an outspoken gun-rights advocate.
Over the month since the Senate passed the bill, lawmakers had been debating behind the scenes whether to scale back the ban on assault rifles to exclude some models, including the AR-15. That rifle has been used in the several mass shootings, including the Newtown, Conn., killing of 20 children and six educators that prompted the Maryland legislation.
On Friday, delegates voted to keep that firearm and 44 others on the list of weapons that would be banned for sale. But they narrowed the definition of what qualifies as an assault weapon. A barrel shroud, threaded barrel, pistol grips, thumb-hole stocks and telescoping stocks would not count as features that disqualify a gun for sale.
Other changes make clear that gun manufacturers can still import and store assault weapons, as well as test them and sell them to dealers and out-of-state customers. Those manufacturers would be exempt from the limit on magazine sizes.
Beretta USA and other Maryland gun manufacturers have threatened to leave the state over the bill, and other states have courted the companies to move elsewhere.
Delegates took a slightly different approach on when to bar people with mental illnesses from buying firearms, and created a new process for those people to regain the right to purchase guns.
People voluntarily committed to a mental health facility for at least 30 days, as well as those involuntarily committed after a hearing, would be barred from buying guns. The delegates kept provisions that would prevent gun purchases by people whom a judge determined incompetent to stand trial and not criminally responsible.
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