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After a year of gun ban, effect on crime debated


As the governor gears up to propose more gun control for Maryland, the effect of the last such measure remains debatable.

It has been almost 14 months since the state's ban on semiautomatic assault pistols took effect, but reviews are mixed.

The ban's supporters point to a recent decrease in police seizures of the pistols as proof that the law is working, while opponents say the ban has not reduced crime.

Baltimore police noticed an increase in their seizures of assault pistols last year -- even after the ban took effect June 1, 1994 -- but a significant decline in confiscations in 1995. Police usually seize guns during arrests, raids and searches.

City police spokesman Agent Robert W. Weinhold Jr. cautioned against drawing conclusions from those data. "It is too early to gauge the results," he said, adding that police support the ban.

Still, one Maryland gun-control activist pronounced the law a success based on the 1995 data. "It appears that the Maryland assault weapons ban is working to keep assault pistols off the streets of Baltimore," said Vincent DeMarco, who lobbied in Annapolis for the ban.

Veteran police Officer J. Gary McDowell, who patrols a high-crime area north of Johns Hopkins Hospital on horseback, said he believes the ban has made a difference. "It just doesn't seem as bad with the assault pistols, but there are still a lot of guns out there," he said.

However, Maryland gun-rights activist Robert A. McMurray said the statistics are meaningless. For one thing, he noted that the numbers being confiscated are so small that one event -- such as recovery of a large number of guns from a single robbery -- could skew them.

Baltimore police seized 85 such pistols last year -- the highest total in four years -- and 24 so far this year. But assault pistols represent less than 3 percent of guns seized in any year.

It is possible that the increase in assault pistols seized in 1994 was related to an overall rise in gun sales that year. Gun shop owners reported a surge that many ascribed to buyers' concern about state and federal gun-control laws.

A federal ban on the manufacture of certain assault weapons took effect in September, three months after the Maryland ban.

Chip Walker of the National Rifle Association, said the guns seized by police may not have been used to commit crimes, and the law should be judged by changes in the crime rate.

Murder in Baltimore dropped 9 percent and violent crime 4.5 percent during 1994, compared with 1993. Police attribute the decreases to the harsh winter.

During the first three months of 1995, murders in Baltimore increased by almost 20 percent while all violent crime dropped 1.4 percent compared with the first quarter of 1994.

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