The Maryland General Assembly moved to tighten the state's gun laws yesterday as both houses voted to curtail the unregulated sale of weapons at gun shows.
The legislation -- a victory for Gov. William Donald Schaefer over the gun lobby -- would enable state police to register more handguns and assault weapons and to check the backgrounds of more people who buy them.
The measure is virtually certain to be signed into law.
Maryland's effort comes on the heels of another, larger win for gun-control advocates -- the enactment of a Virginia law that prevents people from buying more than one gun a month. Virginia had been notorious on the East Coast for its lax gun laws.
The Maryland and Virginia actions, taken together, will make it harder for criminals to buy guns in this region, gun-control advocates say.
In Annapolis yesterday, the Senate and House of Delegates approved practically identical bills aimed at regulating the private sales of handguns and assault weapons at gun shows in the same way the state regulates sales by licensed dealers.
The legislation is designed to close a loophole that has allowed people who buy guns from private collectors at the popular weekend events to avoid the background check and seven-day wait that is required for purchases from dealers.
The loophole made it possible for felons and drug addicts to buy firearms at gun shows that they could not legally get from a dealer.
Private collectors make up about 5 percent of the vendors at the estimated 40 gun shows held in Maryland each year.
No one knows how many handguns and assault weapons they sell or to whom they sell them because the sales have not been regulated.
"The bill's not going to keep every gun out of the hands of criminals, but this is a breakthrough because it closes an important loophole," said David S. Iannucci, the chief lobbyist for Governor Schaefer.
Nonetheless, even if the Maryland bill becomes law as expected, gun buyers who want to avoid a background check could continue to do so legally in a few instances.
They could continue buying hunting rifles and shotguns, whose sales are not restricted in Maryland.
They also could buy regulated firearms -- pistols, revolvers and 24 types of assault weapons -- from private citizens through newspaper ads without a background check. (The Baltimore Sun announced last week it will stop accepting such classified ads beginning April 5 in an attempt to slow the unregulated sale of guns. Ads previously accepted will not appear after April 30.)
Under the bills approved yesterday, gun sellers could continue to carry a few weapons into a gun show and sell them there without restriction.
The legislation affects only those who set up a display table, though that is the vast majority of sellers.
Nonetheless, the Maryland Rifle and Pistol Association is downplaying the effect of the legislation, which it tried to scuttle.
The governor targeted gun shows because he believes some private collectors were exploiting the loophole by selling scores of weapons at many shows.
Those collectors were acting like dealers -- only without a license and the legal responsibilities, Mr. Iannucci said.
The Senate voted 36-10 for its version of the bill without debate, while delegates passed the House version 98-34.
The House plans to accept the Senate version and send it to the governor for his signature. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a done deal," proclaimed Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, the House point man on the issue.
Although successful with the gun show bill, Governor Schaefer was not so lucky with his proposed ban on 15 types of semiautomatic assault pistols.
A more radical gun-control measure, the bill was dead on arrival this legislative session.
He introduced tougher versions of the ban in 1991 and 1992, and those failed too.
DETAILS OF THE GUN SHOW LEGISLATION
The legislation would require private collectors to follow the same rules as licensed dealers when selling pistols, revolvers and assault weapons.
* The seller must fill out a form listing the buyer's Social Security and Maryland driver's license numbers and other identifying information.
* The information is sent to the state police for a background check to determine whether the applicant has been convicted of a felony or violent crime.
* Seven days must pass. If the results of the background check aren't known by then -- as often happens -- the seller may turn the gun over to the buyer provisionally, pending the outcome of the check.
* In taking possession of the gun, the buyer must sign a form stating that he or she is not a criminal, fugitive, drug addict, illegal alien or mentally incompetent.
* Information about the buyer and the gun, including make and serial number, are sent to the state police to keep on file.