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Handgun purchases increasing


Marylanders are continuing to buy handguns and assault weapons in large numbers even as the forces for and against gun control gather their arguments for legislative battles to come.

Gun registrations this year are up 12.8 percent through November compared to all of 1992, on top of a 15.6 increase last year over 1991, according to Sgt. Bernard Shaw, supervisor of firearms licensing for the Maryland State Police.

Sergeant Shaw said that he expects to have registered more than 35,000 guns by the end of the year. The registration figures don't include a large and uncounted market in used guns -- which are sold without supervision by any agency -- and hunting rifles and shotguns.

The peak year for gun registration in Maryland was 1988, when panicky buyers stocked up on cheaply made handguns shortly before the General Assembly banned them. More than 38,000 handguns were registered that year.

State police have added three people to Sergeant Shaw's department, doubling his staff, to speed processing of applications. Under Maryland law, buyers of new guns must wait seven business days before they can pick up their guns while state police check for a record of criminal activity or mental illness.

November registrations were up 22 percent over November 1992, apparently stimulated by Congressional passage Nov. 24 of the so-called Brady bill, which sets a federal waiting period for gun purchases.

"We had 432 applications come in on one day just after Thanksgiving," Sergeant Shaw said.

State police take applications only by certified mail or in person. Sergeant Shaw said that the General Assembly will be asked at its session beginning in January to permit applications to be sent by fax.

Said Tom McCann, owner of Nicoll's Gun Outlet in the 2200 block of E. Joppa Road: "I had a lot of customers come in who were confused by the Brady bill and thought they had to buy their guns before it went into effect."

The Brady bill has helped and hurt the cause of gun owners, Mr. McCann said.

"It's alerted people in Western states like Montana and Arizona, which have no gun laws, to the threat of gun control," he said. "But it put a blemish on the power of the National Rifle Association."

For many years, the NRA has been able to block or soften gun-control efforts.

Nationally, according to a report today in the New York Times, firearms dealers report a surge in sales in recent weeks, often to record levels. In informal interviews from coast to coast, some manufacturers said they are having trouble keeping up with demand and, as a result, prices for some guns are soaring.

The Brady bill actually will have no near-term effect for Maryland gun buyers. The bill, which requires a waiting period of five business days before certain gun purchases can go through, will become federal law in about three months.

It forbids convicted felons, fugitives, minors, drug or alcohol addicts, illegal aliens and the mentally incompetent from buying a gun, and it requires checks of would-be buyers by local law enforcement agencies.

Maryland has required a seven-day waiting period and a criminal background check since 1966.

On the legislative front, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, a grass-roots organization, has formulated a gun-control program to present to the Maryland legislature and has collected a formidable list of backers, including many religious, union, medical and law-enforcement organizations.

The proposal would require gun buyers to pass a safety test and acquire a license before buying a handgun or ammunition.

It would limit state residents to two handgun purchases a year, and they could own no more than 10 handguns unless they received special permission.

No one 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, according to the proposal.

Executive director Vincent DeMarco says the organization will push hard for its agenda in the General Assembly and is lining up a lengthy list of legislative sponsors.

"We're not interested in a watered-down version," he said. "We want comprehensive gun control, and if we can't get it through the current legislature, we'll work to elect a legislature next year that will."

The organization plans a rally Jan. 17 -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- in Annapolis in an attempt to show the legislature the wide support its program has.

"The grass-roots support for gun control is stronger now than it's ever been," Mr. DeMarco said.

Bob McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Pistol and Rifle Association, called the proposal "insanely radical."

"They haven't a chance of getting it passed, and they know it," he said. "I think they're actually seeking a compromise of some sort."

"They're attacking the instrument instead of the criminal," he said of the gun control advocates.

"We're not banning cars because thousands of people are killed every year in auto accidents," he said. "It's an attack on honest, law-abiding citizens and the 1.25 million handgun owners in Maryland."

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