Gov. Martin O'Malley predicted that Maryland will ban assault weapons during the General Assembly session that began Wednesday.
"Their sole purpose is not for sport; it is to kill human beings — as quickly and as many as possible, as effectively as possible," O'Malley said, referring to guns like the semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle used last month in the shooting deaths of 20 Connecticut children.
"I believe that we will, in fact, pass legislation that … restores the assault weapons ban," O'Malley said. Assault weapons have been legal in Maryland since a federal ban was allowed to expire in 2004. Several state lawmakers have said they will propose a ban.
The proposals are part of a broader push nationally for gun control legislation since the Newtown shootings. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also called Wednesday for tougher gun control laws in his state.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, meanwhile, said he believes the General Assembly will act to repeal the state's death penalty law as long as the governor "uses his persuasive techniques, of which he has many." Miller also predicted that the repeal legislation would be petitioned to referendum, leaving the matter to voters to decide in the 2014 election.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said, "It's time to repeal the death penalty."
O'Malley, a death penalty opponent, has not said if he will make repeal part of his legislative agenda this year.
O'Malley, Miller and Busch offered comments on prospects for high-profile issues expected to dominate discussion in the next 90 days as the Assembly convened its 433rd legislative session in Annapolis to rounds of cheers and speeches. All three men are Democrats.
Remarks about the assault weapons ban and the death penalty came during a radio interview in which Miller and Busch raised concerns about the top legislative priority of city officials.
The Rawlings-Blake administration wants the state to promise Baltimore more than $30 million a year over the next two decades, which the city would then leverage to borrow more and create a $2.4 billion fund to repair crumbling school buildings.
Miller dismissed the idea as "ridiculous," since the state would be borrowing money to send the city, which in turn would use it to pay off more loans. "You don't borrow debt against debt," Miller said. "I'm all for funding schools, but you need to find another way to do it."
Busch questioned the financial risk to the state. And Miller criticized the city's handling of its finances, saying, "Baltimore City cannot meet its current fiscal obligations. We need to find a way to help them help themselves."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who attended the opening-day festivities, said it's the city's job to sell its idea and allay lawmakers' concerns. Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who chairs the city's House delegation, said a study about to be concluded by state officials will show that "it really is not ridiculous."
Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, also a Baltimore Democrat, said city officials have yet to brief top leaders, including Miller, on the details of the plan, which is modeled after block-grant systems in other states.
"I'm sure once he gets all the information, he'll have a different comment," she said.
Miller and Busch were each re-elected to the leadership positions in their respective chambers before a crowd that included O'Malley, Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Maryland congressional representatives and county executives.
The newly polished marble floor separating the two chambers was the site of wall-to-wall glad-handing, back-slapping, greetings and ribbings. Comptroller Peter Franchot likened the atmosphere to the first day of school. "Everybody's happy to be here, everybody's getting along," he said. "Then they start getting in fights in the schoolyard."
The session follows last year's unusually busy and emotionally charged legislative season, after which lawmakers were twice called back to Annapolis to finish state business. Four laws passed by the Assembly were subject to voter approval, giving some legislators the sense their work went unfinished until Election Day.
"It feels like we just left," Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said after colleagues re-elected her speaker pro tem.
Del. Tom Hucker's 16-month-old son, Sam, who last year spent opening day lying on his father's desk as an infant, this year reclined in the delegates' lounge and gave fist bumps to passing lawmakers. "It's a little bit like the dawn of springtime — it's all about new possibilities," said Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat.
In the basement of the State House, librarians resumed their posts at an information desk abandoned during the off-season. Shoe-shine operators set up shop nearby.
Outside the State House, lobbyists, interns and activists milled about Lawyer's Mall, the perennial arena for protests. There, Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur, a Democrat who has expressed interest in running for governor, urged opponents of hydraulic fracking to offer lawmakers a glass of dirty-brown water said to be a by-product of natural gas extraction.
Busch, who was first elected speaker a decade ago, told his colleagues that every year on the night before the session, he comes alone to the abandoned chamber and tries out the views from the seats of other delegates, including that of the Republican leader, Del. Anthony O'Donnell.
"It makes me realize what a privilege it is to serve in these great chambers," he said. "What a humbling experience it is for all of us to be important to this democracy."