Frustrated by what he calls "an epidemic of violent yet preventable death," Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. will break ranks with other state officials today and call for an outright ban on private ownership of handguns.
Curran acknowledges that his proposal is at best a long-term goal, but says he hopes that his 58-page report, "A Farewell to Arms," will spur public discussion that eventually will lead to such a ban.
In the meantime, he says, he will push for more immediate changes in state and federal gun laws. Curran is proposing, for instance, new state restrictions on gun ownership and says the federal government should regulate handgun safety features.
But it is his call for a handgun ban that is certain to be most controversial. In an interview yesterday, Curran said only law enforcement officers, gun collectors and a small number of people with legitimate security needs should be allowed to own handguns.
"The rest of us, however, must give them up," Curran said. "The cost has simply become too great."
He provided few details about the practical problems of implementing a handgun ban; an estimated 70 million handguns are now in circulation in the country.
With his proposal, Curran joins a tiny group of elected officials nationally who have called for a handgun ban, according to gun control advocates.
Such an idea, long relegated to the back burner of gun control debate, has gained some momentum in recent months after a rash of highly publicized shootings at schools, offices, a church and a pre-school center.
Curran's proposal caught other state officials off guard. It drew mostly praise from gun control advocates and sharp condemnation from gun rights advocates.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who plans to push "smart gun" legislation to require all handguns sold in Maryland to be child-proof, seemed to have little enthusiasm for a ban but declined to answer questions about Curran's proposals.
The governor "is focusing on positive, aggressive steps to prevent violence in our families and our communities," said Michael Morrill, a Glendening spokesman.
'A wake-up call' to owners
Gun rights advocates lashed out at Curran's proposal as a violation of a citizen's basic freedoms and predicted that his report would lead to widespread mobilization by their supporters.
"It's a wake-up call to the millions of gun owners across the nation who really prefer not to believe that their government wishes to disarm them," said John Josselyn, legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore.
Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican and backer of gun rights, said Curran's proposals would likely have little impact in Annapolis.
Haines added: "What really bothers me is people who have police protection around the clock but they want to ban all firearms for law-abiding citizens."
Other Curran proposals
Along with his long-term goal of a handgun ban, Curran is proposing several less radical changes. Among them:
Giving jurisdiction over guns to the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- a move he said would lead to a federal requirement that all handguns be made child-proof. A similar proposal is stalled in Congress.
Rewriting state product liability laws to allow lawsuits against gun manufacturers for damages related to "preventable" injuries and deaths.
Stiffening the state's process for getting a gun permit to require fingerprinting, and prohibiting a person convicted of any crime, including all misdemeanors, from owning a handgun.
Giving police the ability to use wiretaps to investigate illegal gun sales and make illegal possession of a gun a felony, rather than a misdemeanor.
Licensing and regulation
A spokeswoman at Handgun Control, the national lobbying group, said the organization supports all of Curran's proposals except his call for a ban on handgun ownership.
"It's understandable that many people who are fed up with the unconscionable amount of death and injury would seriously consider a gun ban," said Naomi Paiss, the group's communications director. "But we think a comprehensive gun licensing and regulatory system would go a long, long way to solving the problem and is more achievable."
Other groups, including the Violence Policy Center, saluted Curran's proposal.
"A handgun ban has been off the radar screen for close to 20 years," said Kristen Rand, director of federal policy for the Washington-based advocacy group. "We think [Curran] should be applauded for having the foresight to put out some long-range goals and at least set the benchmark for debate."
Curran, in his 13th year as attorney general, said he has not decided which of his proposals to press during the General Assembly session that begins in January. He said he will, in any case, lobby for Glendening's expected "smart gun" proposal.
An unintended effect?
Some people involved in the issue said Curran's far-reaching agenda could have the unintended effect of building opposition to any gun control measure, including Glendening's bill.
"This is the best thing he could do for us," said Josselyn, the gun rights lobbyist. "Our people tend to be live-and-let-live people. What he's going to do is awaken the sleeping giant. The harder they squeeze, the stronger we get."
He added that Curran's proposal confirms one of his long-standing beliefs.
"For years he's maintained he doesn't want to ban guns," Josselyn said. "It's refreshing to know he's finally being honest."
Curran, 68, said he finally grew weary during this year's spate of gun violence and decided that dramatic action was needed.
"What do you do when you see Pearl and Paducah and Columbine?" he said, ticking off some of the communities where shootings occurred. "Do you just say, 'Well, I'm not sure we have the answers.' Somebody's got to say something."
Curran's announcement today comes exactly six months after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which 15 people were killed.