Despite the national horror at the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, the effort in Congress to enact any meaningful legislation to address gun violence appears increasingly at risk. The first casualty of the gun lobby's efforts was the proposed reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. And now even the idea of extending background checks to gun shows and private sales appears to be in trouble. As each day passes, it seems, the memory of the Newtown massacre fades, and so does the will to act.
That makes the votes on Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun violence legislation Friday in two House of Delegates Committees all the more significant. Although the committees endorsed some amendments that weaken the bill slightly, they approved others that make it stricter. On balance, they have sent to the House floor a stronger bill than Governor O'Malley proposed or the Senate approved.
It took more than four weeks for the House Judiciary and Health and Government Affairs committees to vote on the governor's bill, which passed the Senate in late February. During that time, members of judiciary began grumbling about the assault weapons ban provisions in the bill, and it appeared for a time that they might even go so far as to remove from the banned list the AR-15 — the very gun used in Newtown, Aurora, Colo., and by the Beltway snipers a decade ago. In the end, they didn't. In fact, committee members left entirely intact a list of assault weapons that will be banned completely.
They did make some modifications to a set of characteristics of weapons not specifically listed that would also make them subject to a ban. That's unfortunate, as is an amendment that will allow any Marylanders who have ordered a banned assault weapon before the legislation becomes effective on Oct. 1 to keep it. But those concessions are not nearly so significant as the provisions that remain.
The most important element of the governor's legislation is his proposed requirement that handgun purchasers register with the state police and provide their fingerprints. It survived a narrow vote in committee. That provision is designed to cut down on the so-called straw purchases by which criminals who are ineligible to buy guns often get them. A handful of other states have similar laws — and lower rates of gun violence than Maryland.
Mr. O'Malley's proposal to limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds has also made it through the legislative process so far. Its presence mitigates the ill effects of the amendments to the assault weapons ban.
Meanwhile, other parts of the governor's bill have actually gotten tougher as a result of House and Senate amendments. The two chambers differ somewhat in their approaches to restricting gun purchases by those who have been involuntarily committed to mental health treatment, but either is an improvement on the governor's initial proposal. The House committees also added a reporting requirement for lost or stolen guns and specified that those who receive probation before judgment for violent crimes will also be ineligible to purchase guns. According to Del. Luiz Simmons, who pushed for the amendment, hundreds of people were sentenced to probation before judgment in Maryland last year for assault, robbery and other violent crimes.
The House is expected to spend much of the week debating this legislation and considering more amendments to it. If it approves the bill, the two chambers will have to work out some fairly significant differences, and success is by no means guaranteed. But if lawmakers can overcome the remaining hurdles, they can credibly claim to have responded to the national outrage over gun violence with legislation that addresses both the threat of a mass shooting and the daily killings that take place on the streets of Baltimore.
The registration requirement will make it more difficult for criminals to get guns. The expanded prohibitions on the ownership of firearms by those who suffer from mental illness and improved sharing of information about mental health between state and federal agencies will prevent suicides. And while it offers no guarantees, the assault weapons ban and magazine limit at least diminish the odds that Maryland will ever experience something so horrific as the Newtown massacre. This legislation will not solve Maryland's problem with gun violence overnight. No bill could. But it will make us safer, and it deserves passage.