Assault-gun ban to die; debate to live on

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gun dealer Sanford Abrams says the expiration of a nationwide ban on assault weapons only means that a right that should have never been denied, to buy and collect those firearms, will be returned.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, whose county saw the deadly effects of a military-style weapon in the hands of a sniper, is concerned. That the gun used to kill 10 Washington-area residents two years ago is not covered by the federal ban only shows that the law should be strengthened, not weakened, he says. "Millions of people," he says, "were held in fear by one of these weapons."

While activists on both sides of the gun-rights issue voice their thoughts on assault weapons, the Maryland State Police, the agency that oversees firearms enforcement, says the effects of the ban's expected end early next week are likely to be minimized in Maryland because of existing state laws.

In Maryland, all 19 assault weapons covered by the nationwide ban are regulated more strictly than a typical gun used for hunting. Assault rifles require the same seven-day waiting period and background check that handguns do, and assault pistols are outlawed.

"When the sun sets on the federal law, it's not going to change our goal, which is to get guns out of the hands of thugs," says Detective Sgt. Timothy Frye of the state police firearms enforcement section. "We have a clean, tight system in Maryland."

Before buying an assault weapon, such as the Street Sweeper revolving-cylinder shotgun that's on the soon-to-expire federal banned list, the purchaser must undergo a background check and wait seven days, according to state law.

And 15 assault pistols, such as the TEC-9 assault pistol used during the Columbine High School shooting that left 13 dead, will remain illegal under the state's 10-year-old ban on assault pistols.

At midnight Monday, a ban on the sale of 19 kinds of military-style assault rifles, some of which are capable of being fired from the hip, is set to expire. President Bush has said he would renew the ban if a measure reaches his desk, but Republican leaders said they intend to let the law lapse.

Opinion polls nationwide show broad support for the ban, even among gun owners. A survey this year by the Gonzales Research Group of Annapolis found that 74 percent of 818 Maryland registered voters supported banning military-style semiautomatic assault weapons.

Proponents of the federal assault weapons ban point to a drop in gun violence after it went into effect in 1994. The previous decade had seen a 42 percent increase in the violent crime rate, according to the FBI's annual crime survey.

Gauging the effect

It is difficult to gauge the ban's effect in Maryland because few police departments keep track of the number of assault weapons they seize or how many are used in crimes.

In Baltimore, where such statistics are kept, fewer than 2 percent of the 3,170 guns confiscated last year were assault weapons. No murder in Baltimore in at least the past four years has been committed with an assault weapon, says Donny Moses, a police spokesman. There have been more than 1,000 homicides in the city during that time period.

Of the 557 firearms Maryland State Police seized in the first eight months of last year, 33 met the federal definition of an assault weapon. State police say they do not normally keep such statistics but gathered the information last year in response to a request by The Sun.

The Violence Policy Center says that 20 percent of the officers killed between 1998 and 2001 were shot with an assault weapon. In Maryland, it appears that Officer John Stem of the Baltimore County Police Department is the last officer to die of wounds inflicted by an assault weapon.

He died in 2000 from complications of a gunshot wound he suffered 13 years ago. Gunfire had left him paralyzed below the waist.

Maryland has more than 65 laws that define who can buy a gun and what kind of gun they are allowed to buy, according to the state police. Some state politicians don't believe those laws are tough enough - especially as the federal assault weapons ban comes to an end.

During the last General Assembly session, state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, sponsored a bill that would have outlawed 45 kinds of assault rifle - a much more comprehensive ban than the current federal ban.

"These are civilian versions of military weapons, and they're designated for one purpose: to kill as many people as possible," he says.

The bill was defeated in committee by a 6-5 vote.

Lt. Col. Stephen T. Moyer, who heads the state police homeland security bureau, testified against Garagiola's bill.

"We have some of the most stringent gun laws in the country, and the laws we have seem to be working," he said in an interview this week.

About half of the state's police chiefs and sheriffs signed a petition in favor of renewing the federal assault weapons ban. The state police did not sign the petition.

The state police testimony last spring, some gun-control activists say, is a reflection of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s opposition to the bill. "They're puppets of the governor," Leah G. Barrett, spokeswoman for CeaseFire Maryland, said of the state police.

Ehrlich takes no position on the nationwide assault weapons ban, according to his spokesman, but state senators said during the battle over the bill that he took an aggressive role in lobbying against Garagiola's bill.

Gun enthusiasts say the federal ban served no purpose. Responsible gun owners, they say, should be able to collect military-style assault weapons and use them safely in target competitions and deer and small game hunting.

Besides, says Abrams, who owns Valley Gun in Parkville, "People who want to own assault weapons already own assault weapons."

When the ban went into effect in 1994, gun manufacturers quickly adjusted the listed weapons. Firearms that were cosmetically different - but functionally identical - to the outlawed guns were back on the market in months.

'Smoke and mirrors'

"This quote-unquote ban was just smoke and mirrors," he says.

Still, proponents of the nationwide assault weapons ban are not giving up. A news conference to discuss the need to prohibit such weapons is scheduled for Monday in Bethesda, and is to include Barrett, Duncan, Garagiola and other politicians.

Garagiola says he will try again next session to get assault rifles outlawed in Maryland.

"I think we'll have even more support in 2005," Garagiola says, "once people realize that the federal ban is really gone."

Barrett calls the current nationwide ban "leaky-weak with holes that need to be plugged." Still, she calls its demise "tragic."

"It's a huge step back," she says.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said, "I think it's a very sad day for our republic when we allow the assault weapons ban to lapse." He criticized the governor and President Bush for not taking a strong stand against assault weapons.

"The next time an officer is killed on our streets by an assault weapon, I really hope that there are no condolence cards coming from people that are responsible for this," O'Malley said.

Duncan said he's grateful for the gun laws now on Maryland's books. But he says more should be done to keep weapons such as the Bushmaster AR-15 used by convicted killers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo off the streets.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. says the state does have "pretty strict laws to try to limit the access of guns to the wrong people."

"But can't we come to a consensus that there are certain types of weapons that have the potential for great harm?" he says, adding that once the national ban expires, the number of assault rifles on Maryland streets is sure to increase.

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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