Gun control advocates, foes ready for battle


Supporters will invoke the names of slain children; opponents will raise the specter of an American Hitler.

The issue dividing them is gun control. And as it moves to center stage in Annapolis tomorrow, it promises to generate some of the most incendiary debate in this year's legislative session.

Amid the sound and fury, though, nobody is expected to offer much evidence on the key question: Will any of the proposed measures make Maryland safer?

That is because no one really knows.

The proposals to be submitted to the legislature are either too new or too hard to analyze in the states where they have been enacted. Nor is the past much of a guide. Despite more than 25 years of gun control legislation in Maryland, there is virtually no research on its effects.

Buoyed by polls showing strong public support this year, the governor and gun control advocates are pushing their most ambitious agendas ever.

Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, a gun control lobby group, wants handgun owners to be licensed and handgun sales to be limited to two per person a year. A bill containing the measures is scheduled for introduction tomorrow night in the House of Delegates. That will coincide with a rally outside the State House featuring former presidential press secretary James Brady, injured in the attempted assassination of President Reagan.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's package, already introduced, would ban 18 models of semiautomatic pistols and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Advocates will argue that, taken together, the various measures can begin to reduce the number of guns circulating in Maryland from an estimated 2 million and to reduce the state's rising homicide rate as well. Groups opposing gun control will counter that the state's current laws haven't worked and that further legislation would mark another step down the road toward totalitarianism.

"This looks like the way the Nazis worked," said gun rights advocate Robert A. McMurray, referring to proposals to license handguns and limit private ownership. Like Adolf Hitler, he says, gun opponents want to identify who has firearms so they can eventually take them all away.

Among Mr. Schaefer's most controversial proposals is one to limit purchases of handguns and some so-called assault weapons to one per person per month. The measure resembles a Virginia law passed last year to prevent people from buying guns in bulk and then selling them to criminals.

Bonnie Kirkland, the governor's chief legislative officer, says a similar law in Maryland would slow the flow of guns to criminals and keep gunrunners from moving their business here. The law, she noted, should not harm legitimate gun enthusiasts.

"People are hard pressed to explain why they would need to buy more than one handgun or one assault weapon a month," she said.

Mr. McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle & Pistol Association, a gun rights group, says the proposed law is superfluous. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms already requires gun shop owners to report anyone who buys two or more handguns over a period of three days.

"It's a solution in search of a problem," he says.

Fewer bullets

In addition to purchase limits, the governor wants to ban ammunition magazines that carry more than 20 bullets. Some hold as many as 50.

The logic is that someone opening fire would have to switch ammunition clips, giving people a chance to either escape or disarm the assailant.

That's what happened in December when a man opened fire on a Long Island commuter train. Other passengers tackled him as he was trying to reload for the third time.

But by then, four people had been killed and 21 injured. In that case, a law like the one proposed for Maryland wouldn't have helped. The pistol used held a maximum of 15 bullets.

The governor decided against trying to ban magazines that hold fewer than 20 bullets because sportsmen use them in target competitions.

Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse has a comprehensive plan that would, among other things, license handgun owners. The process would require applicants to take a written test, submit their fingerprints and have a photo taken.

Handgun owners would have to report private sales to the state police. If they didn't, they could be held liable in civil court for any harm caused by the weapon.

Vincent DeMarco, the group's executive director, said the process and the financial risk should dissuade people from buying guns for criminals.

"Our legislation will give law enforcement [officers] the tools they need to keep handguns out of the wrong hands," Mr. DeMarco said.

'Crimes we didn't commit'

But Mr. McMurray believes that laws will never stop the black market for guns, in part because firearms last a long time.

"I've got a 1903 Colt New Service [revolver,]" he said. "I took it out a couple of months ago and shot it, and it worked fine."

In place of restrictive gun laws, Mr. McMurray prefers legislation that focuses on those who have already committed crimes. One bill his group supports would broaden the list of guns whose use during a crime would lead to a mandatory five-year sentence.

"We're not going to be punished for the crimes we didn't commit," said Mr. McMurray, speaking of the estimated 1.25 million gun owners in Maryland.

Although aggressive by Maryland standards, most of the gun control proposals this year fall short of the few drastic laws that appear to have reduced homicide elsewhere. Studies show that a 1976 handgun purchase ban in Washington, D.C., and strong licensing restrictions in Vancouver, Canada, probably saved dozens of lives in both cities.

In the case of Washington, a University of Maryland study found that in the year after enactment of the handgun ban, gun-related deaths dropped by about 47. And they remained at a lower level for a decade.

The explosion of the crack trade in the late 1980s, however, showed the limits of such legislation. Drug dealers soon turned to neighboring states with weaker gun laws, and the Washington homicide rate soared, researchers say.

In Maryland this year, only Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, has introduced a handgun ban. It is given almost no chance of passage.

If the rest of the proposals are not as drastic, the question arises: Why try them at all?

Ms. Kirkland takes the long view.

"I don't think you can say that because you do something less dramatic, it has no effect," she said. "No one is claiming that any single proposal will solve the problem, but this is part of the solution."

Maryland's 'Brady' law

Although gun control is a hot issue in this year's legislature, it is certainly not the first time. Since the 1960s, Maryland has enacted at least seven gun control laws.

Last year, Congress passed the so-called Brady bill requiring a five-day waiting period and criminal background check for handgun purchases. Maryland imposed a seven-day waiting period and background check more than 25 years earlier, in 1966.

Since then, state police say they have prevented thousands of criminals from buying handguns through legal sources. In 1992, 31,405 people applied to buy handguns; police rejected 431, according to state records.

The problem with the law is twofold. People with criminal records can still buy unregulated firearms, including many shotguns and rifles. And they can persuade a friend without a criminal record to buy handguns for them.

How many do so in Maryland?

"Anyone that really wants to," said state police Sgt. Bernard Shaw, who supervises firearms licensing and registration for the state.

'Saturday Night specials'

Studies on the effects of waiting-period laws are neither numerous nor encouraging. A University of Maryland study of such laws in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and St. Louis suggested that they had no influence on homicides.

Five years ago, Maryland created a nine-member panel to ban so-called "Saturday Night specials." The Handgun Roster Board, it is known, reviews applications to sell handguns in the Maryland.

Its job is to ban the sale of cheap, easily concealable, low-caliber weapons that are convenient for crimes but not much else. Since its inception in 1989, the board has banned the sale of 29 models of handguns and approved about 1,300.

Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse says the board has prevented the sale of two of the most popular guns retrieved from crime scenes nationwide: the Jennings J-22 pistol and the Raven MP-25.

Matt Fenton, a gun control advocate and former roster board member, says the board has not been able to ban more guns because it works under fairly narrow definitions.

"It's hard to ban ones that aren't very, very small or very poorly made," he said.

Like some critics of the handgun board, Mr. Fenton worries that drug dealers are replacing the banned weapons with more powerful semiautomatics that carry more bullets. Anecdotal evidence from the state medical examiner's office suggests that may be the case.

When Chief Medical Examiner John Smialek began examining homicide victims in the state in 1985, the typical gunshot murder involved one or two bullets ranging in size from small to large.

Today, Dr. Smialek says he sees more large caliber bullets, particularly .38s, .357s and 9 mms. Eight or 10 bullet wounds in a body is not unusual.

Despite the lack of research on the effects of gun control, some of those who have studied the issue believe it can save lives. But to see measurable effects, it may take more drastic measures than the piecemeal legislation Maryland has enacted over the past quarter-century.

"Anything that cuts down guns is going to save a lot of lives," said Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkley. "But it takes pretty drastic adjustments in patterns of civilian ownership to make a dent.

"What everybody wants to do is buy themselves a dollar and a HTC half of gun control and get themselves a million and a half of 'life-savings,' and it doesn't work that way."


To receive by fax a free schedule of legislative hearings in the Maryland General Assembly for the week of Feb. 7, dial Sunfax at (410) 332-6123. After you hear the greeting, punch in the information number 5959.


Maryland already has a number of gun control laws. They include:

* A 1966 law similar to the Brady bill passed last year by Congress. The state law requires a criminal background check and seven-day waiting period for the purchase of most $l handguns.

* A 1988 law that bans the sale of many easily concealed, small-caliber handguns referred to as "Saturday Night Specials."

* A 1989 law requiring a waiting period and background check before purchase of 24 types of assault weapons, including AK-47s.

* A 1992 law requiring gun owners to keep weapons out of the reach of children.


This year, the governor wants to:

* Ban the sale of ammunition magazines that contain more than 20 bullets.

* Ban the sale of 18 types of semiautomatic pistols.

* Limit purchases of handguns and some assault weapons to one per person per month.


Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse is proposing even more sweeping legislation that would:

* Require a photo license for any purchaser of a handgun. Eleven other states, including New Jersey and New York, have such laws.

* Limit people to two handgun purchases a year. Maryland would be the first state in the nation to do this.

* Make anyone who violates gun sale laws liable in civil court for any harm caused by the gun.

* Ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons.

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