Susan Peschin

Susan Peschin (right) of the Consumer Federation of America speaks before the panel in support of the proposed weapons ban. (Sun photo by Monica Lopossay / February 10, 2004)

For state lawmakers, gun-control advocates, police commissioners and even candidates stumping for president, when it comes to the issue of banning assault weapons, 1-in-5 is the magic number.

Democratic presidential primary front-runner Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts uses the statistic. So does the Episcopal Church of America. And in Annapolis, where a Senate committee heard testimony yesterday from all sides on a proposed assault weapons ban, supporters quoted the statistic verbatim: "One in five law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty is killed with an assault weapon."

There's just one problem with the ratio, according to gun rights advocates: It isn't true.

Dozens of them testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday, and a hundred more crammed an antechamber while committee members considered a bill that would give Maryland one of the nation's strictest bans on semiautomatic firearms by banning 45 named weapons and any subsequent copycats. Though 70 state senators and delegates back the bill, gun shop owners, hunting groups, and assorted police organizations rejected the ban and the statistic.

Lt. Col. Steven. T. Moyer of the Maryland State Police -- which opposes prohibiting the sale, transfer and ownership of semi-automatic weapons -- told committee members that of the 50 rifle-related deaths in the state over the past decade, none of them were officers.

"The statistics are not here and [don't] support this legislation," he said.

Roots of the 20-percent figure lie in the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that works to curtail gun violence through research, advocacy, education and litigation. The group analyzed unpublished FBI data on fatal police shootings from Jan. 1, 1998, through Dec. 31, 2001. During the period, 211 officers nationwide were killed in the line of duty, 41 of them with weapons the group determined to be assault weapons, such as M1 Carbines, AK-47s, Tec 9s and AR-15s.

"They classified all rifles as assault weapons," Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, wearing a button with the words "MARYLAND GUNOWNERS VOTE," complained during the marathon hearing.

Not so, said Kristen Rand, the Violence Policy Center's legislative director, in a telephone interview.

"All we did was we called the FBI, we asked them if we could get a list of guns used to kill police officers," Rand said. "We took those instances where we knew for sure that it was an assault weapon and put them together. I think the confusion comes in that this data is not routinely released."

The data, summarized in the organization's "Officer Down" report, includes the model number and bullet caliber used in police shootings from Alaska to New York. Among the fatalities is the Oct. 20, 2000, death of Baltimore County Police Officer John Stem, the last Maryland officer to die of wounds inflicted by an assault weapon. Stem suffered the wounds during a barricade shooting in 1977 that left him paralyzed and killed a fellow officer.

New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed by Colin Ferguson during the 1993 Long Island Railroad shooting, is sponsoring a bill on Capitol Hill to renew the federal assault weapons ban that will expire on Sept. 13, a ban prompted in part because officers complained of being outgunned by criminals on city streets. McCarthy, a Democrat, said she has noted the 1-in-5 statistic in the past because it harks to the main purpose of the ban.

"Let's go back to the reason we passed the assault weapons ban in the first place: That was because our police officers were outgunned and they were being killed by these guns," McCarthy said.

Howard County Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay, president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police, one of the few law enforcement organizations supporting the ban, agreed.

"It's our responsibility to protect our officers on the street, and that's why we're here," Livesay testified.

The FBI's statistics, gathered from police and sheriff's departments around the country, aren't intended to shape politics said spokesman Paul Bresson.

The fate of Maryland's proposed ban is uncertain. The 11-member Senate committee is split down the middle, according to Jacobs. Five favor the ban; five oppose it. The swing vote is Sen. John A. Gianetti Jr., a Democrat from Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.