The chances of enacting a prohibition on the sale of assault rifles in Maryland before the federal ban expires dimmed yesterday when a state lawmaker who had been the swing vote on a Senate committee announced his opposition.
Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. gave opponents of the ban the one-vote majority that would be needed to kill the measure in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The move, which surprised gun control advocates and fellow senators courting his support, prompted the committee's chairman to postpone a vote until next week. It also threw into question whether any law will control semiautomatic assault rifles in Maryland once a federal ban on the guns expires in the fall.
"We don't consider any bill before its time," Sen. Brian E. Frosh said after shelving the ban bill. "But if I were going to bring the bill up, I'd much prefer it if it were 6-to-5 in favor rather than 5-to-6 against."
Ordinarily, a majority vote in a General Assembly committee is all it takes to kill a bill. But with Giannetti's expected no vote, the bill might get an unusual second chance even if six members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee vote it down.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, vowed yesterday to deliver it to a floor vote via a little-used legislative route, a move Frosh said he would support. Senate rules permit bills to be brought to the full chamber without committee action when a majority of the members requests it.
"There's other procedural ways to do this," Garagiola said. "I've never done it before, but I haven't given up, and this will wind up on the floor for the Senate to vote on it."
The proposal would ban 45 assault weapons, more than twice as many as the 19 semiautomatic weapons banned by the federal law.
The proposed ban is one of the most contentious issues before legislators this season, prompting hundreds of protesters to call and to send thousands of e-mails to lawmakers over the past three weeks. Elected officials past and present also have offered their opinions.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., hasn't stated outright his position on the bill, but as a delegate he voted against the state ban on assault pistols in 1994. Lately he has lobbied behind the scenes to prevent the assault rifle ban bill from getting out of committee.
One indication of how much the governor wants to avoid a gun issue this year is his quick trip to the Senate lounge Thursday night to call Sen. Alex X. Mooney off the floor and urge him to attend yesterday's committee vote.
A periodic campaigner for his former boss, U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Mooney had hoped to attend a breakfast fund-raiser in Hagerstown with Vice President Dick Cheney.
But Ehrlich, joined by the lieutenant governor and the budget secretary on Thursday, told Mooney that he was needed in the Senate committee because the measure needed a majority to kill the gun bill, and members were divided 5-5 going into yesterday's anticipated vote, Mooney said.
When Giannetti, a Democrat from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, came in yesterday, he distributed copies of a three-page statement before sitting down.
"I firmly believe that continuing the effects of the federal ban will not have a significant effect on the safety of the public or the safety of law enforcement officers," he wrote.
"I believe that the bill would be filibustered on the Senate floor and that in order to end debate, which many conservative Democrats would be forced to make votes for cloture, which would potentially hurt them politically in their district. The Democratic Party in Maryland can ill afford to lose ground in conservative districts."
Giannetti said numerous lawmakers advised him on the issue, among them current and former members of Congress and two former governors.
Leah G. Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, expressed dismay at Giannetti's decision to oppose an assault weapons ban.
So did Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who lobbied at the State House for the ban.
"I am surprised. This is common-sense legislation. We saw the impact that these weapons can have with the sniper shootings in this area. We need to put a stop to that," he said. "We need to keep the federal ban going at a minimum."
Garagiola, who marshaled 20 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors for his bill, said later that Giannetti, his committee colleague and morning jogging partner, had made a mistake.
"There are so many organizations supporting this that I think it's foolish, completely foolish, not to," he said, skimming Giannetti's statement. "If the vote goes down, it's a win for the [National Rifle Association] and a loss for the families of Maryland."
Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, was looking ahead to the rare feat of getting a bill onto the Senate floor if the committee votes it down late next week.
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.