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On gun control, it's the House's turn

Our view: The state Senate passed strong reforms that will help prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands without burdening law-abiding Marylanders

3:25 PM EST, February 28, 2013

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The Maryland Senate today passed the most significant gun control measure in Maryland in at least a generation, one that not only responds to the threat of a Newtown-style mass shooting but also to the daily violence that plagues Baltimore and other Maryland communities. The House of Delegates is to hold its first hearing on Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislation tomorrow, and it should quickly follow the Senate's lead.

The key components of the legislation are a ban on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; new restrictions to prevent those suffering from a mental illness that makes them a threat to themselves or others from obtaining handguns; and a new licensing system for handgun purchasers. The most significant amendments the Senate adopted dealt with the latter two elements of the bill, and though they have been characterized by some as watering down the legislation, they do not rob the bill of its essential purpose, and in some cases they improve it.

The mental health component of the bill the Senate passed is clearly an improvement over Mr. O'Malley's initial legislation — in fact, he endorsed the amended version. His original bill essentially maintained the existing standard in state law that people who have spent 30 consecutive days or more in a mental health treatment facility were ineligible to purchase a gun. But that was always an imperfect way of determining who should not have firearms.

People spend time in treatment for a variety of mental health conditions that do not make them a threat to themselves or others, and whether they stay for 30 days may have as much to do with the quality of their health insurance as anything else. The standard the Senate adopted applies to those who have been involuntarily committed for any length of time. Since the involuntary commitment law deals only with those considered a threat to themselves or others, that makes sense. The House should adopt the same language.

The changes the Senate adopted to the licensing provisions make the process easier and less costly, but that doesn't diminish its effectiveness.

The Senate reduced the fee for a license from $100 to $25, cut the proposed requirement for gun safety training from eight hours of instruction to four, and doubled the length of time a license would be effective, from five years to 10.

The first change is perfectly reasonable. According to the Department of Legislative Services' analysis of the governor's proposal, the state would have made a substantial profit from the licenses if the fee was set at $100. Taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing the cost of the licensure process, but neither should the state see it as a new revenue stream. The projected average cost of issuing a license over the first five years of the bill's existence is about $27 — close enough, as they say, for government work.

Eight hours of handgun safety classes would certainly be better than four, considering how often handguns are involved in accidental injuries and deaths. But four hours is certainly better than the zero now required by state law. As for the duration of the license, it is important to remember that purchasers will still have to go through federal and state background checks for every gun they buy.

The Senate's amendments left intact the most significant provisions of the licensing scheme in Mr. O'Malley's bill, most notably that applicants for handgun purchase licenses would be required to provide their fingerprints to the state police. Other states with similar laws have found them effective in reducing straw purchases — that is, purchases by people who are eligible to buy guns on behalf of those who aren't. In states like Maryland, where even private sales of guns are subject to background checks, straw purchases are one of the most common ways that criminals get guns.

The point is not to make it onerous for law-abiding Marylanders to get guns, it is to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands. In that sense, the Senate's amendments only make the bill stronger. The House would do well to adopt the same approach.

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