Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend angrily denounced Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday for saying he would review at least two of the state's tough gun laws, setting up gun control as the first major conflict to arise in the gubernatorial campaign since last week's primary election.
"We have common-sense gun laws here in the state of Maryland and he wants to roll them back. That's wrong," Townsend told a rally of supporters as she opened her Baltimore headquarters. "We're saying to Congressman Ehrlich and your [National Rifle Association] friends, 'Stay out of Baltimore and stay out of our state.'"
Ehrlich's campaign refused to back down on his remarks yesterday, which came in answer to reporters' questions during a media briefing Friday. But a spokesman stressed that he's not seeking sweeping changes to the state's laws.
Still, Ehrlich's comments clearly energized Maryland Democrats yesterday to rally behind Townsend in a manner not evident so far in the campaign.
Joined by other Democratic elected officials, the lieutenant governor punched the air as she charged the Baltimore County congressman "is in bed with the NRA" and "is clearly showing his true colors as a conservative Republican."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes joined Townsend's attacks. "It's absolutely clear where most voters stand on this issue," Sarbanes said. "There's a huge effort going on on the Republican side now to flimflam the voters in the state of Maryland."
On Friday, Ehrlich said that, if elected governor, he intends to review the effectiveness of two gun-control laws approved by the General Assembly.
The two laws specifically involve the Handgun Roster Board - a panel that aims to cut down on the sale of cheaply made handguns, often called Saturday night specials - and the "ballistic fingerprint program" that seeks to help police more easily track guns used in crimes.
After gun-control advocates and Townsend's campaign pounced on Ehrlich's comments - saying they showed that his policies would make it easier for criminals to obtain guns - Ehrlich issued a statement yesterday clarifying that his primary objective is to reduce gun-related crimes.
"The crime fighting goals of the Ehrlich administration are fewer guns on the streets and fewer crimes," Ehrlich said in the statement. "Maryland currently has more than 310 separate laws and regulations governing the sale, possession and use of guns. Many work well. Some do not.
"Ineffective laws divert resources - police officers, lab technicians, investigators and money - away from our common goals," Ehrlich said.
James M. Purtilo, editor of Tripwire, a gun-rights newsletter, said yesterday that gun owners have long been skeptical of whether the ballistic fingerprint program works.
"Kathleen has to believe that Marylanders want to spend millions of dollars on a program that has never caught a criminal and has no prospects of catching a criminal, and that only has the outcome of barring the legal transfer of firearms," Purtilo said.
"I look at Bob Ehrlich's statement as being refreshingly candid about the business of governing, not the business of politicking."
An Ehrlich spokesman said the congressman has "not ever suggested that he would revisit or roll back any laws in Maryland" and does not plan to look at laws having to do with the "use, ownership, sale or purchase" of guns.
"She cannot put words in his mouth," said spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "All he said is let's make sure our resources are being spent to control crime."
Nevertheless, Townsend's campaign and Democrats seized on gun control in their effort to cut into the moderate image Ehrlich is seeking to project.
"Do not be deceived by somebody who tells you he cares about our young people staying safe but then wants more guns on our streets," state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat, said at yesterday's rally.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also issued a statement yesterday saying that Ehrlich's "way of thinking is out of step with voters in Montgomery County and all across Maryland."
Until now, Ehrlich has sought to downplay gun control as an issue, much as Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey did in 1994 and 1998.
During those campaigns, Sauerbrey said she would not seek changes to Maryland's gun laws, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening still ran ads focusing on Sauerbrey's votes opposing gun-control measures in the General Assembly.
Similarly, Democrats have been highlighting Ehrlich's votes as a delegate to the Assembly and as congressman, including one backing the repeal of a federal ban on assault weapons. Ehrlich's staff has said that his votes in support of trigger locks and background checks show a moderate record on guns.
Political observers said yesterday they were surprised Ehrlich would even suggest reviewing any of Maryland's laws, given how voters seem to feel.
In January's Maryland Poll, conducted by Potomac Survey Research for The Sun, half of all registered voters said they support banning the sale of all handguns - a far more restrictive position than anything pushed by most gun-control advocates.
"This is one of those issue areas that's a real hot button and it is going to hurt Ehrlich," said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"Had he been able to take the position that Sauerbrey took and stick with it, he would have been able to take the issue off the table. Now he may have given her [Townsend] all she needs to be able to paint him as a conservative."
Townsend campaign officials said yesterday they have no immediate plans to make gun control a focus on television advertising, though two groups that are backing Townsend - the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance - already have begun radio ads attacking Ehrlich on guns.
But her campaign quickly took steps to ensure gun control gained more attention yesterday.
After her public appearances in Baltimore, Townsend shuffled her afternoon schedule to ensure she could travel to Montgomery County and make herself available to Washington television media to discuss gun control.