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Weighing the loss of Beretta jobs [Editorial]

Personal Weapon ControlFirearmsLaws and LegislationGun ControlInterior PolicyPlant Openings

Opponents of Maryland's gun laws are falling all over themselves to offer I-told-you-sos after the gun manufacturer Beretta announced it would be building a new plant in Tennessee rather than Maryland. Beretta had warned the state that this would happen before the law was enacted last year, and officials there are making the connection between their decision and gun control, saying they only looked for states with "a consistent history of support for and likelihood of future support for Second Amendment rights."

Beretta's featly to an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment is a bit rich, given that it is an Italian company, and gun laws there are generally much more strict than those in Maryland or anywhere else in the United States. And as the Nashville Tennessean reported Beretta will be eligible for state tax credits and infrastructure and job training grants from the state, and it is negotiating a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes grant from Gallatin, the town where the new factory will be built.

But even if we take them at their word, the evaluation of Maryland's gun laws must also take into account what we gain by having these new restrictions. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller put it well in saying, "You can't jeopardize the public safety of your citizens to keep a manufacturer."

And as it happens, the state is unusually focused on public safety and guns this week as we struggle to make sense of the actions of Darion Marcus Aguilar, the 19-year-old College Park man who opened fire in the Columbia Mall Saturday, killing two and injuring one before taking his own life. Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, made an explicit connection between the gun law and the mall shooting, noting in a statement Monday that Aguilar bought the gun he used after Maryland's new law went into effect, meaning he could not buy an assault rifle like those used in many other mass shootings. "We will never know how many lives were saved because he could not buy an assault weapon such as an AK-47," Mr. DeMarco said.

As more facts have emerged about Aguilar this week, there is reason to question whether Mr. DeMarco's contention is literally true. According to the owner of the Rockville gun shop where Aguilar bought his weapon, the young man came in looking for a shotgun, supposedly for protection in the home. No evidence has surfaced so far to suggest that he would have bought an assault rifle if it were available, nor is it certain that Aguilar has this kind of senseless attack in mind when he bought the gun. (Moreover, he would have been too young to buy an assault rifle under previous Maryland law anyway.)

We still don't know whether Aguilar was for some reason targeting the two victims, Zumiez skateboard shop employees Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson, or whether he intended simply to kill as many people as possible.

However, there is truth to the notion that an assault weapon of the type Maryland banned could have made the situation much more deadly. Shotguns are regulated less strictly in Maryland than handguns because they are generally used for sport or bird hunting; according to FBI statistics, less than 3 percent of homicides involve shotguns. They are used as offensive weapons in the military — in fact, the Armed Forces use a variant of the same kind of shotgun Aguilar had — but for specialized purposes. Originally, they were adopted for trench warfare. Now they're used for things like breaching doors.

Shotguns, which generally use shot rather than bullets, are particularly deadly and accurate at close range but less so at long range. That may help explain why the shot Aguilar fired into the food court didn't hit anyone. The effective range of the AR-15, the most popular assault rifle, is at least 10 times as great as the Mossberg 500 shotgun Aguilar used. His gun held six rounds, and reloading such a weapon is not so quick and easy as replacing a magazine. In some recent mass shootings involving assault rifles, the perpetrators used magazines holding 30 and even 100 rounds; Maryland law now limits magazines to 10 rounds. Except in particularly experienced hands, it takes longer to fire multiple shots with a pump-action shotgun than with a semi-automatic rifle. Assault weapons, though not fully automatic, can fire as quickly as a shooter can pull the trigger.

The killings at the mall on Saturday were a horrible tragedy, but after the nation's recent history with mass shootings, it's all too easy to imagine a scenario in which it could have been even worse. That's what legislators had in mind when they voted to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. If Beretta wants to use that concern as an excuse to build a new plant elsewhere, so be it.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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