Hoping to capitalize on a perceived groundswell in public opinion, a state group will announce today a sweeping gun control proposal that would give Maryland one of the strictest gun laws in the nation.
The proposal, which is certain to face stiff opposition in Annapolis, would require a Marylander to pass a safety test and acquire a license before buying a handgun or handgun ammunition.
State residents would be limited to two handgun purchases a year and could own no more than 10 handguns overall unless they received special permission from the state police.
Nobody under the age of 21 would be permitted to own a handgun, and anyone who sold one to an unlicensed person would be liable for any damages caused by that weapon.
The proposal, which is expected to be introduced as legislation in the coming session of the General Assembly, is being pushed by Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, a statewide lobbying organization.
"People who are tired of gun violence are demanding that something be done," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the gun control group. "People are tired of the fact that we can't enact substantial gun control."
Mr. DeMarco said it will be difficult to pass even portions of the ambitious proposal in a legislature that has turned down a series of gun control bills the last several years.
But if the proposal loses in Annapolis, gun control advocates intend to make it a major issue next November, when all 188 seats in the legislature will be on the ballot.
The gun control group believes public sentiment is on its side, pointing to a poll it recently commissioned that found strong support for limits on handguns.
The group also has assembled a potentially powerful list of religious, community and other organizations to support its efforts, including the state teachers union, the state medical society and the retail merchants association.
Recently enlisted was the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, which is urging its 460,000 parishioners to join the fight. The church joined major Episcopal, Jewish, Methodist and Baptist groups that were already part of the gun control coalition.
A lobbyist for forces opposing gun control called the Maryland group's proposal "ridiculous."
"They don't have a chance of getting this through," said Robert McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association. "This is absolutely outrageous."
He called several parts of the proposal, such as limiting the number of handguns someone can own, violations of the U.S. Constitution.
"All of these restrictions are restrictions against law-abiding citizens," he said. "None of them will have anything to do with a criminal who buys a gun on the black market. Law-abiding citizens are not the problem."
Mr. McMurray said his group will lobby next year for its own agenda, including a bill that would make it easier for some people to obtain the permit that is already required to carry a handgun.
The anti-gun push in Maryland is the latest in a string of efforts around the country to control gun violence. Colorado recently banned gun ownership by anyone under age 18, and Florida will consider a similar bill in a special legislative session next month.
Virginia recently limited gun purchases to one per person per month, and New Jersey banned the sale of assault weapons, despite intense lobbying by the National Rifle Association.
And a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that homicides are more likely to occur in households where guns are kept than in households where they are not.
Such developments have given gun control supporters more confidence to take on the powerful NRA in legislative fights.
In Washington, Congress is considering a crime bill that would, among other things, institute a national five-day waiting period for gun purchases.
Congress is also considering a ban on assault-style weapons, something Maryland gun control forces also are pushing. Similar legislation has failed in Annapolis for several years running.
Under current law, a Maryland purchaser must undergo a criminal background check and wait seven days before buying a gun, restrictions that were extended last year to cover the sale of weapons by private owners at gun shows.
Maryland was considered a pioneer in gun control in 1988, when it enacted a ban on so-called Saturday Night Specials, easily concealed handguns often used in street crime. A review board has banned the sale or manufacture in Maryland of a dozen models of such handguns.
But since the creation of that board, the state has enacted only modest changes in its gun control laws.
Some legislators, including Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the powerful president of the state Senate, have already predicted that little substantive gun control legislation will pass in the coming session, which begins in January.
One major obstacle will be the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Seven of the panel's 11 members represent districts in which a majority of voters opposed the Saturday Night Special referendum in 1988.
Statewide, the ban was approved 57 percent to 43 percent.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who is honorary chairman of the state gun control group, "favors reasonable gun control" and supports the group's proposal in general, said spokeswoman Page W. Boinest. But the governor also will introduce his own gun legislation next year, she said.
Under the proposal outlined by Mr. DeMarco, a current handgun owner would have to obtain a license to acquire more handguns or handgun ammunition.
HIGHLIGHTS OF PROPOSAL
* A person would need a license to acquire a handgun by purchase or gift, which is similar to current New Jersey law. An applicant would have to pass a test on handgun safety. The only state that now requires a test is Michigan.
* No person could own more than 10 handguns or obtain more than two handguns a year without special permission from the state police. No state currently limits the number of handguns that can be owned. Virginia has limited gun purchases to one per person per month.
* The proposal would prohibit handgun possession by anyone under the age of 21, except under supervision of a parent, guardian or instructor. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia already prohibit possession by minors, although in most cases the age limit is 18.
* No person could obtain handgun ammunition without a handgun license.
* A person selling a handgun, assault weapon or ammunition to an unlicensed person would be liable for any damage caused by the device.