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'We have to start now'


Nearly a thousand Marylanders turned out in Annapolis last night to launch one of the most ambitious handgun control bills ever in the state.

People from Baltimore and its suburbs, as well as the Eastern Shore and other points marched on the State House carrying photos of slain loved ones and signs urging legislators to pass a comprehensive gun control law this year.

Georgia Garrett brought a high school prom photo of her son, Gerald Higgs, who became Baltimore's 72nd murder victim last March when a gunman mistook him for someone else and shot him in the back of the head.

Barbie Willis came from Severna Park mourning her 21-year-old son, Charley, who was shot to death last year over a pen.

"You can't let it happen to you," Mrs. Willis told the crowd of about 800 gathered in the chilly weather. "We have to start now."

Later, handgun victim and former presidential press secretary James S. Brady took to the stage and applauded the marchers' efforts.

"Maryland can take the lead and set an example for all the other states to follow," said Mr. Brady, reading his speech from a wheelchair. "If we can enact a comprehensive bill in Maryland, we will start a chain reaction and lead to the passage of a national gun control policy."

The marchers rallied in support of House Bill 1283, which was introduced in the House of Delegates later last night. Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, a gun control lobby group that organized the rally, is the primary force behind the bill.

If enacted, the measure would require licensing of handgun owners, restrict handgun purchases to two per person per year and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.

The bill goes substantially further than does the governor's legislative package, which includes a ban on 18 models of semiautomatic pistols and would limit handgun purchases to one per person per month.

Several prominent political figures joined Mr. Brady last night. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gave a short address to the crowd. State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. sat next to Mr. Brady and helped him turn the pages of his speech.

Rally organizers challenged the city and state police estimate of 800 people last night. "There's definitely more than a thousand," said Jane Caplan, an official with Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse.

Across the street from the marchers last night, several gun rights supporters staged their own little rally. Francis Bagrowski of Hanover held a sign reading "No Nazi Gun Laws." He said he opposed gun control bills on constitutional grounds.

"The Bill of Rights belongs to us," Mr. Bagrowski said, referring to the Second Amendment.

After the rally, Sen. John A. Pica Jr. of Baltimore introduced a different bill that could help bring parts of the marchers' gun control agenda to a full vote in the Senate.

In the past, the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which usually handles gun control bills, has killed most of them and prevented the full Senate from voting on the issues.

But Mr. Pica said he found a nuance in the law that would allow his bill to go to another committee.

The unusual bill would prohibit people from bringing assault weapons into the State House.

Instead of going to Judicial Proceedings, the Senate president has assigned it to Economic and Environmental Affairs, where it is expected to receive a warmer hearing.

Mr. Pica said he hopes that the committee will pass the bill -- which could then be amended to include any number of gun control measures on the Senate floor, he said.

"For years we have looked for a method to pass a meaningful piece of legislation that would deal with handguns and assault weapons, and I think we have found one," Mr. Pica said last night. "I have a problem where a handful of people can thwart the will of an entire state."

Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a strong gun-rights advocate, has criticized the rerouting of bills as circumventing the legislative process.

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