As he prepares for his second legislative session, Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he plans to make the politically divisive issue of gun control a top priority.
This afternoon an administration gun violence task force will meet at Howard County Community College for the first of four public hearings on the issue. The group will recommend gun control and related measures to the governor in November.
Although the issue is a contentious one, political analysts see it as helping a new governor who won a narrow victory in November.
By supporting gun control, Mr. Glendening can both play to and expand his liberal, urban and suburban, political base. At the same time, observers say, he can fulfill a campaign promise and show people he is not afraid to champion a controversial issue.
"It's a winner," said Del Ali, a political pollster in Columbia. "As long as he's passionate, he gets credit, because he hasn't shown passion."
While helping Mr. Glendening, though, his support of gun control could hurt some rural members of his own party who live in legislative districts where the issue is unpopular.
Political analysts say a Democratic governor at the top of the ticket pushing gun control could have an electoral trickle-down effect and further polarize a state already divided along urban and rural lines. In 1994, Mr. Glendening won only three of the state's 24 jurisdictions -- Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
"To the extent that he moves [the party] more toward its urban and suburban core, it's going to become more homogenous and become a smaller tent," said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland College Park. "It means a lot of those rural Democrats will be left out in the cold."
In recent years, the state Democratic Party has had trouble holding onto rural legislative seats. While the party continues to control strong majorities in both branches of Maryland's legislature, Republicans made significant gains in the last election. Of the 22 seats the GOP picked up last year, nearly half were in rural areas.
One Democrat who barely held on was Del. D. Bruce Poole of Hagerstown. The Western Maryland legislator, who supported the state's 1994 assault weapon ban, beat a pro-gun candidate by a mere 70 votes.
"The zealots came out strongly against me," said Mr. Poole, who cited gun control as one of several issues that nearly cost him the race.
Mr. Glendening, a longtime supporter of gun control, said he based his advocacy of the issue not on personal or party politics, but sound policy.
"I've got to do what is right," the governor said in a recent interview. "In the urban areas, there's a slaughter going on out there.
"It's not a question of polarizing in my mind," Mr. Glendening continued. "In the rural areas, they don't have near the problem we have with violent crime."
The issue is also a personal one, the governor said. Four years ago, his wife, Frances Anne, was robbed at gunpoint outside of a supermarket in Hyattsville in Prince George's County, he said.
Rich Parsons, executive director of the state Democratic Party, says political polarization on the issue is not the fault of the governor but of gun rights proponents. Some advocates, including the NRA, argue that gun control forces are bent on banning all firearms in an attempt to frighten gun owners, he said.
Vincent DeMarco, former executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and a co-chair of the governor's task force, sees gun control as a winning issue at the ballot box. He cites exit polls in last year's election showing that the majority of people who ranked gun control as a top issue voted for Mr. Glendening.
So far, the governor has declined to talk about what gun control measures he will back when the legislative session opens in January, saying he wants to wait for the task force report.
However, based in part on his 1994 campaign platform in which he supported licensing handgun owners, some predict he will make that his issue.
Governor Glendening originally pledged to take up gun control in his first legislative session, but postponed those plans after narrowly winning a race against an anti-gun control candidate, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey. The governor said he decided against pushing the issue this year because he was sworn in after the session began and did not have enough time to organize support.
The delay may have helped him. National polls show gun control continues to be a broadly popular issue.
The recent bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City has even increased support in some areas, if only temporarily, polls suggest.
But public opinion polls don't necessarily translate into votes in the State House. To pass a bill next year, the governor will almost certainly have to get it past Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Mr. Baker, a Democrat who represents the upper Eastern Shore, vehemently opposes most gun control.