This General Assembly session's first showdown on handgun-control begins tomorrow in a House committee, which is hearing arguments on a slew of gun bills even as advocacy groups and the governor's office continue negotiations on finding common ground.
Handgun-control organizations believe that two Democratic delegates hold the key in the House Judiciary Committee -- Del. Mary Louise Preis of Harford County and Del. Gerry Brewster of Baltimore County. In both cases, the delegates come from districts that strongly endorsed handgun control in the 1988 referendum. And in Mr. Brewster's case, his congressional prospects could be influenced by his committee actions, since constituents in the redrawn 2nd District voted 55 percent in favor of the handgun measure.
Still, the chances of getting a strong gun bill depend in large measure on the emergence of a compromise proposal. Handgun advocates will probably have to accept a slimmed-down version of their comprehensive gun-licensure plan, while the governor's package banning assault-style weapons, limiting the sales of high-capacity ammunition magazines and restricting the number of monthly handgun purchases could be broadened a bit. A consolidated House bill would stand a better chance of gaining committee and floor passage.
With the combined forces of Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, holding all Senate handgun bills captive, rapid House action is essential. The sooner a consensus handgun-control bill emerges from the Judiciary Committee and passes the House, the more pressure will be placed on Mr. Miller to live up to his earlier commitment to let all members of the Senate vote on meaningful handgun legislation this session.
Given the enormous public upset over crime and the rampant misuse of handguns in criminal acts, action to strengthen Maryland's current handgun laws is imperative. Legislators cannot duck this issue without running the risk of defeat when they run for re-election later this year.
A public opinion poll last September for a gun-control group found that gun control was a hotter issue with voters than most other concerns and that the overwhelming majority of those questioned favored tougher restrictions.
Removing the easy access to handguns -- and eliminating entirely the right to purchase the far more lethal assault weapons -- would be a positive step for Maryland lawmakers to take to help stem the violence on our streets.