One day after the start of an ad campaign attacking his position on gun control, Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that if he becomes governor, he would review some of Maryland's gun laws with an eye to getting rid of them.
Specifically, Ehrlich mentioned the state's 2-year-old "ballistic fingerprint" program, which requires gun manufacturers to provide state police with spent shell casings for all handguns shipped to Maryland.
He also targeted the state's Handgun Roster Board, formed in the late 1980s. The board must approve new handgun models before they can be sold in Maryland, and it researches personalized handgun-safety technology.
"I would review, in general terms, to see what's working and what's not. To see what's efficient and what's not," he said of gun laws during a meeting with reporters.
His comments invited an onslaught of criticism from state and national gun-safety advocates - and Democrats.
"We've always known that Robert Ehrlich has an extremist agenda on guns," said Amy Stilwell of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "This is just a huge red flag that he is indeed simply furthering the [National Rifle Association's] agenda and is not in favor of life-saving, sensible gun laws."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has staked his political career on reducing gun violence, was also displeased. "First he gave us a U.S. attorney that's doing half as many gun prosecutions as his predecessor. Now he wants to roll back the state's gun laws. I don't think that's a good idea at all," he said.
And the campaign of Ehrlich's Democratic rival, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, responded almost gleefully to Ehrlich's remarks, citing them as proof of his core conservative beliefs.
"It's not surprising, but it's very troubling," said Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm. "Rolling back gun laws is not something that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend supports. This is ridiculous, this is really irresponsible."
The NRA, which has opposed the ballistic fingerprint program in the past, declined to comment yesterday.
Townsend and gun-control advocates have relentlessly flaunted his congressional record on guns as good reason not to vote for him - as does the radio ad launched this week. They are pointing out that he voted against a ban on Saturday night specials, and that the National Rifle Association considers him a friend.
To win this election, Ehrlich must convince Democrats that he is moderate. He has stressed that he supports background checks and trigger locks, and wants to more aggressively prosecute gun criminals. Yesterday, after his remarks, his staff quickly passed around a list of Ehrlich's gun votes titled "Mainstream in Maryland."
Democrats called his comments a major gaffe, and even some Republicans were concerned. Allen J. Prettyman, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, said he personally supports Ehrlich's intention to revisit gun laws, but that his position will probably alienate large numbers of suburban Washington voters.
'A very big issue'
"This is a very big issue here in Montgomery County. They have tried to ban bullets here and everything else," Prettyman said. "I'm sure Townsend can now use this to say, 'He is going to reverse all the laws on the books' ... and I think voters here will be receptive to it."
But Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg said voters would appreciate Ehrlich's candor. "I think that probably a lot more people are interested in hearing straight talk about gun laws than Kathleen might think. Not all people are blindly and totally anti-gun the way she is."
The ballistic fingerprint program was part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's sweeping gun safety law approved by the General Assembly in 2000. The idea was that information from spent casings could be used by police to track down guns used in crimes.
While state and national gun safety groups hailed the program as innovative, gun manufacturers complained it would cost them too much money, and threatened to stop shipping guns here.
Ehrlich said yesterday the program seemed ineffective. "We're trying to find out if that has solved one crime in Maryland. If it has, great, let's expand it." If it hasn't, he added, he would "submit the evidence to the people," arguing that it's a waste of state resources. "You have to be skeptical if you look at what's happening in the state."
Lt. Bud Frank, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said the software to run the program cost $1.2 million. In addition, temporary state police employees were hired for eight months to collect casings from guns that manufacturers had not tested.
So far, the database contains information from about 17,000 casings, Frank said, and police have made two matches to guns used in crimes, though no one has been convicted.
But Frank said the system, like any database, will provide more hits the bigger it grows. "It is a very useful tool that can be used by all law enforcement," he said.
Ehrlich also said there are problems associated with the Handgun Roster Board, which meets every other month or so and consists of law enforcement officials and members of pro- and anti-gun groups.
Ginni Wolf, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, said the board could work better, but is an important part of making sure guns are used safely.
Stilwell agreed, citing a recent study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research showing the effectiveness of the ban on Saturday night specials. "To hint that he doesn't think that the board is effective is quite interesting, but disturbing," she said.
Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.