Committee leader stalls firearms bills


The General Assembly appears headed toward rejecting all major firearms-related legislation this year, despite calls throughout the 2002 gubernatorial campaign and sniper crisis for tougher measures to combat gun crime.

One of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s priorities, Project Exile - a program to toughen punishment for gun-related crimes - is among the legislation likely to fail this year because an influential committee chairman says he won't let it be considered unless it's attached to stricter gun control measures.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate panel reviewing the legislation, said he would allow his committee to vote on Project Exile legislation only if the governor is willing to support an expanded ban on assault weapons - something Ehrlich opposed when he was in Congress and has threatened to veto in Annapolis.

"Unless we can reach a compromise that includes a comprehensive approach to gun violence, I guess we'll have to see what happens next year," said Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and leader of the effort to defeat Ehrlich's nominee for environmental secretary this month. "Probably, all of the gun bills will go down this year."

House leaders said they will not try to move their versions of gun legislation out of committee if the Senate committee refuses to act on them.

The failure of the governor's major gun initiative would deal another blow to an administration that is struggling for passage of some of its major legislative priorities.

Throughout the gubernatorial campaign, Ehrlich pledged to implement Project Exile as a way to curb the gun violence in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

The concern about gun violence was heightened by sniper attacks carried out with an assault rifle in the Washington area. The attacks, which gripped the region in fear for three weeks in the fall, left 13 people dead and prompted calls for tougher measures to combat gun-related crime.

Ehrlich has long favored Project Exile as a deterrent over what he sees as more restrictions or requirements on law-abiding gun owners. He notes the success of the program in Richmond, Va., where its use has been credited by some with a reduction in gun violence.

"This is an idea whose time has come," Ehrlich said yesterday. "This is a program that works."

The governor has moved forward with part of his proposal, targeting Baltimore and Prince George's County. Ehrlich and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio agreed last month to have federal prosecutors more aggressively pursue gun cases in those two jurisdictions.

Ehrlich's bill would apply to state prosecutions, and he said the measure would further help the city, which has had hundreds of homicides every year for more than a decade.

But Frosh said studies have shown that Project Exile alone does not prevent gun crime. He said other measures are needed to support the program, including the legislation also before his committee that would ban all assault-style weapons - measures the governor has vowed to veto.

"Project Exile is not much of a project," Frosh said. "It's kind of a grab-bag of items. I'd call it a few items short of a project.

"You've got to have some gun control with it," he said.

In addition to a ban on assault-style weapons, gun control advocates also are pushing legislation that would require gun owners to report their lost or stolen handguns within 48 hours of discovering their disappearance. A third proposal would expand so-called ballistic fingerprinting to include rifles to help investigators match a specific weapon to a crime.

"We know we have the support among the populace," said Khalid Pitts, state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of three gun safety organizations lobbying for tougher laws. "Marylanders want a ban on assault weapons. They also want to hold gun owners accountable if their guns are lost or stolen."

While firearm enthusiasts oppose all three measures, gun control advocates argue that the added regulations would help deter crime rather than simply waiting to punish someone after an incident has occurred, as with Project Exile.

Among those supporting the tougher gun control measures are Montgomery Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who led last year's sniper attack investigation, and Sonia Wills, the mother of slain sniper victim Conrad Johnson, a Montgomery bus driver.

"We know that on the floor there is general support both in the Senate and House for all of these gun measures," Pitts said. "I think one of the biggest impediments is the governor."

Gun control advocates would support Project Exile if the governor would back the other measures, Pitts said. But he added that they are resigned to the fact that there likely will be no legislation this year.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee where the gun bills are under review, said his committee is waiting to see what Frosh is going to do with the gun bills before acting on them.

Vallario said it would be a waste of time for his committee to move the legislation forward if Frosh intends to kill the bills by keeping them in his drawer and preventing them from coming to a vote in committee. He said taking no action this year "is probably a good idea."

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