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Carroll officials offer mixed response to firearms legislation

Guns, gun control mental health, the Second Amendment, walk out, walk up — with two of the worst mass shootings in American history taking place across the country in the past six months months, including a Tuesday school shooting in St. Mary’s County, firearm policy and philosophy have been topics of debate on social media and in legislatures.

In Maryland, two firearms bills with mixed support from Carroll County officials have been making their way through the General Assembly.

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SB 1036, cross listed as HB 1646 in the Maryland House, would tighten enforcement on existing prohibitions on criminals convicted of domestic violence charges possessing firearms, while SB 908, which just recently failed to advance through the Senate, would have repealed many aspects of the 2013 Firearms Safety Act, including a prohibition on the sale of AR-15 style rifles.

Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, who represents Carroll County, supported SB908 in the Senate because it would repeal a ban on assault style rifles he said has proven superfluous in preventing violent crime and only makes it more difficult for law abiding shooters to use the weapon of their choice.

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“By and large in Maryland and most everywhere, the main issue we are facing with gun crime has been pistols, handguns,” he said. “[The Firearms Safety Act of 2013] basically caused a lot of hoops to jump through for legal gun owners and sportsmen, with no real positive effect on criminal usage.”

“We don’t have shootings in Maryland with assault style rifles. It doesn’t happen,” agreed Jim Astrachan, an attorney and founding principal of Astrachan Gunst Thomas, P.C., as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

The Maryland Senate gave final approval to Gov. Martin O'Malley's sweeping gun control bill Thursday night, sending the legislation to the governor for his promised signature.

Astrachan is also an avid shooter, concealed carry permit holder and firearms instructor who said that the 2013 assault rifle ban focused on cosmetic features of certain “military style” rifles — pistol grip, a tapered barrel with a indentation for attaching a bayonet and a flash hider at the muzzle — but that many other rifles of identical function remained legal. Many others even looked the same as banned rifles, he said, but for a heavier barrel that is less quick to overheat during shooting, making those rifles more accurate than banned firearms.

“The only thing that would enable you to tell the difference is a stamping on the barrel, ‘HBAR,’ standing for ‘heavy barrel,’” Astrachan said. “The people that wrote these laws really did not have a terrific understanding of arms, or, they did, and they worked with lobbyists or whoever and carved out exceptions.”

The assault rifle ban is, he said, “safety theater.”

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees and State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo also voiced criticism of the 2013 law’s ban on assault style rifles as ineffective.

“That kind of stuff does zero to help the situation,” DeLeonardo said. “The vast majority of people that are killed are killed by 9mm handguns.

But SB 908 would have also repealed aspects of the 2013 law that have nothing to do with assault style rifles, and instead have to do with handguns. The bill would also have repealed the handgun licensing process in Maryland, which requires people be fingerprinted, take a training course and pay a $250 fee for a 10-year license, the prohibition on felons and others disqualified from owning firearms from possessing ammunition and the requirement that people report the theft of firearms to the police, according to Astrachan.

“They are attempting to gut the restrictions to make it more difficult, to buy a handgun or to rent a handgun because of this handgun qualification license requirement,” he said.

There is at least some evidence that those aspects of the 2013 Firearms Safety Act have deterred handgun crime.

A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study found an 82 percent decrease in the risk that a handgun would be found in the hands of a criminal who had not legally purchased that gun within 12 months of it being sold following the passage of the 2013 law, a fact the authors attributed to the chilling effect the handgun licensing requirement had on “straw purchasers,” legal gun owners who buy guns for criminals. Pennsylvania and Virginia, who did not pass laws like Maryland’s did not see a similar reduction.

At the same time, Astrachan said, the more lenient laws in neighboring jurisdictions meant that criminals were still able to get guns elsewhere.

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“It’s not the guns that are illegal, it’s the people who are illegal,” he said. “You’ve got all these prohibited people who are not allowed to own guns, who are acquiring guns, and the guns are coming from out of state. They are coming from Virginia, Florida, Texas.”

DeLeonardo, who as a Maryland prosecutor took on a large number of straw purchaser cases, said that the fingerprinting required by the 2013 law may not have made much difference, as it was never difficult to identify straw purchasers.

“I think that’s just a bunch of things being put on law-abiding citizens, they are the ones jumping through all the hoops,” he said. “I think it’s a feel-good legislation but it doesn’t do anything but create an obstacle for people who are law abiding.”

On the other hand, DeLeonardo said, the requirement that people report stolen firearms to police has been an effective tool, since it is generally only straw purchasers buying guns for criminals who would fail to report a stolen gun anyway.

“I definitely think that’s been effective,” he said. “If they are never required to make a report, then they can keep doing that. It does help shut down those trying to circumvent the law by buying guns for violent criminals.”

DeWees, who said he had never been a supporter of the 2013 law, and who had not had a chance to read SB 908, said that he, too, supported a requirement that people report stolen guns.

“I would not support any legislation that repeals an individual having to disclose that a firearm was stolen or anything that is putting a gun back in a criminals hand,” he said.

Ready was not immediately familiar with those portions of SB 908 dealing with the requirement to report stolen firearms, and initially suggested speaking to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stephen Waugh, R-District 29, who represents Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, for a more detailed explanation.

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Waugh declined to answer any specific questions about his bill, or explain his reasoning for trying to repeal the requirement to report stolen firearms, but did send a general statement via email:

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“Since the passage of the extreme gun control act in 2013, violent gun deaths have gone up. This bill did not work,” the statement reads in part. “The purpose of the bill was to repeal the significant infringements on law abiding citizen’s civil liberties.”

Both DeWees and DeLeonardo were happy to support SB 1036, and HB 1646 however.

“It was easy for me to support the Moms Demand Action bill put through to retroactively seize firearms from those that have been convicted of domestic violence” DeWees said. “That got sweeping bipartisan support. I went down and testified for the bill so that it would be signed into law and hopefully it will.”

It is already illegal for someone convicted of a domestic violence crime to possess firearms, DeLeonardo explained. This bill would require that those criminals certify to the court that they have transferred their fire arms — either surrendering them to police and transferring them to a non-prohibited owner — after their conviction.

DeLeonardo’s office would also send anyone accused of a domestic violence charge a letter in advance of their trial date explaining their duties if convicted, eliminating the confusion that has sometimes reigned.

“It really sort of protects the person that was convicted because very often, you would have people convicted of an offense like that and not realizing they were not able to possess these guns,” he said. “Or they would say, ‘I know I can’t have handguns, but I can still use other guns.’”

The reasoning behind the law is that there is a strong statistical link between people who commit intimate partner violence and those that use firearms illegally, DeLeonardo said.

“You don’t want to have the situation where a person has firearms after having abused another person,” he said. “When we look into Carroll County, historically our homicides have been domestically related.”

The 17-year-old Great Mills High School student who shot a 16-year-old classmate Tuesday in the St. Mary’s County school had been in a relationship with the 16-year-old, who died Friday.

DeLeonardo also pointed out that this bill, should it become law, is not a case of gun confiscation from law-abiding citizens.

“These are not law-abiding citizens, these are convicted criminals,” he said. “That’s a big difference.”

And even those restrictions that affect law-abiding citizens, such as the handgun licensing requirements passed in 2013, are still legal and perhaps reasonable restrictions, according to Astrachan. The 2008 Supreme Court Decision in District of Columbia v. Heller affirmed for the first time in federal court that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to own and bear firearms, he said, that it was not just a collective right. But that decision also made clear that that right is subject to restrictions.

“I teach Second Amendment law. I say there are gun nuts on both sides,” he said. “We need to have meaningful restrictions, but they need to be legal.”

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