Banning the killers


IN ABOUT a year, unless Congress acts, the decade-old federal ban on assault weapons will expire. Maryland opponents of military-style guns and their terminator clones don't want to rely on pro-gun Republicans controlling Washington to act responsibly, so they are moving to ban 45 of these high-powered, long guns in the state.

They're smart to get out front on this issue, because it's too easy for legislative leaders to bury a proposed ban in a bottomless drawer or to hold it hostage.

The public needs to remind lawmakers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. before the General Assembly convenes in January what polls have already shown: A majority of Marylanders support gun control. A statewide poll conducted for Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse found overwhelming support (64 percent) for a ban on future sales of military-style weapons. Even among Republicans, the preference (52 percent) was for a ban. That was the finding of a 2003 survey of 838 registered voters by the Gonzales/Arscott Research firm.

AK-47s, Uzis, M-16s, and Street Sweepers are among the 45 weapons whose sale would be outlawed under legislation proposed by state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola of Montgomery County and Del. Neil F. Quinter of Howard County, both Democrats. Also on the list is the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, the model for the gun used by the Washington-area sniper. The Garagiola-Quinter ban also would apply to similar high-powered guns manufactured after the 1994 assault-weapons ban to skirt the federal law. If the gun is equipped with a single military-style feature -- such as a flash suppressor, a forward pistol grip or a grenade launcher -- it, too, would be outlawed. The federal ban requires at least two features.

Any assault-style weapon purchased lawfully before the enactment of a proposed ban would be legal under the lawmakers' proposal. But the new law would prohibit any future sales between private individuals or at gun shows, which have enabled people to get around a state police criminal background check.

Assault-style weapons represent a tiny percentage of the guns seized by Baltimore police. Last year, the city confiscated 47, slightly more than 1 percent of the guns recovered. But a study by the Violence Policy Center has found that one in five police officers killed in the line of duty nationally between 1998 and 2001 was shot with an assault-style weapon.

There's no legitimate purpose for an assault-style weapon beyond its use by the military. Why take the chance that one would fall into the wrong hands or be misused? Baltimore prosecutor Wesley Adams succinctly summed up the lethal nature of these guns during the double-murder trial of suspected drug dealer Pierre Wilson. "This is a killing weapon," Mr. Adams told the jury as he held aloft an AK-47, the style weapon Mr. Wilson pulled from his pants leg and fired off to execute two drug rivals in April 2000.

The power of the gun was evident on Lauretta Avenue that spring day: Not only were the two victims fatally shot in the head, but the spray of gunfire penetrated the walls of several rowhouses, sending women and children diving for cover. Mr. Wilson is serving two life terms for the murders.

Assault-style pistols have been illegal in Maryland since 1994. Why should the sale of their big brothers be any different?

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