Marylanders strongly support gun control proposals, poll finds

A new poll shows Marylanders strongly support two gun control measures that Gov. Martin O'Malley has suggested he might ask the General Assembly to pass in the wake of last month's elementary school massacre in Connecticut.

On another measure the governor supports — repeal of the death penalty — the state's voters are divided.

The poll of 800 registered voters, taken by the Annapolis-based firm OpinionWorks and released to The Baltimore Sun, shows overwhelming majorities favor banning the sale of assault weapons in Maryland and limiting the number of bullets a gun's magazine can hold.

Voters favor the assault weapons ban 62 percent to 35 percent, and they endorse 71 percent to 24 percent limiting gun magazines to 10 bullets, the poll found. The margin of error for the survey, which was conducted by telephone Dec. 28-30 and Jan. 2, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Ed Hatcher, a spokesman for the newly formed advocacy group Smart Gun Laws Maryland, welcomed the findings.

"This is an overwhelming sign of public support for stronger gun laws in the state," he said. "These are the kind of numbers the legislature cannot ignore."

But Del. Michael Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican and gun rights advocate, said the numbers show the public's lack of understanding of their Second Amendment rights.

"People are too easily willing to give up rights under the false pretense they're gaining some safety," Smigiel said.

O'Malley is expected to propose a package of bills crafted to address gun violence, possibly including an asssault weapons ban, school safety proposals and expanded mental health services. He is considering whether to make repealing the death penalty part of his legislative agenda for the first time since 2009.

The death penalty issue is likely to be particularly hard-fought and could be decided by a margin of one or two votes in the state Senate. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has promised a floor vote if the governor can muster enough support to pass a bill in that chamber.

The poll showed Marylanders are against repeal by a margin of 48 percent to 42 percent, but the margin has been narrowing in recent years.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who has led the fight for repeal, said the poll numbers are more favorable to her cause than in the past.

"What it says, at least to me, is we're moving toward repeal," Gladden said. "These are the highest, closest numbers we've ever seen saying they support repeal."

Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said that when pollsters ask people another question whether they would support life without parole as an alternative to execution — they routinely say yes by margins of 60 percent or more.

Some voters tend to support capital punishment in the abstract, Henderson said.

"People have their first gut reaction to the death penalty, and then they learn more and they often change their minds," she said.

Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, wants to go in the other direction. He plans to push measures that would require the death penalty for people convicted of serial killings, mass murder, contract killing or murdering police officers and correctional officers. He said many citizens don't believe life without parole is sufficient punishment and want to see killers executed.

"I believe they support it because 99 percent of the people would never in their worst moment, in their angriest time in life, ever consider harming another human being, let alone murdering another human being," McDonough said. " I believe that people are so horrified and so angered by seeing an innocent life taken, like the case of these children, that they believe the punishment must be the ultimate punishment."

Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, said the poll shows that neither side of the death penalty debate can muster a majority of public support now. "There's no consensus," he said.

Unlike many other polls on the death penalty, the OpinionWorks survey found support for capital punishment to be similar among white and black voters. Nor, Raabe said, is there much of a gender gap, though men are slightly more likely to support capital punishment. There is a partisan difference, with Republicans opposing repeal 2-1 while Democrats and independents split almost evenly.

On assault weapons, the poll found strong support for a ban across racial, age and gender lines. The only region of the state where voters reject such a ban is Western Maryland. Democrats and independents strongly supported such a measure. Republicans were narrowly opposed.

The idea of limiting magazine size attracted even broader appeal, with even Republicans backing the idea by a 21-point margin.

Hatcher said the poll is bad news for the National Rifle Association and other opponents of limits on guns.

"When advocates have the opportunity to present specific, reasonable, common-sense proposals to control guns, there is overwhelming bipartisan support, and it's clear the NRA simply does not speak for the country," he said.

Smigiel said he isn't surprised by the strong numbers in favor of an assault weapons ban. He said most Marylanders don't know that the state defines the term based on how the gun looks, not on its firepower.

"People are afraid of the term 'assault weapon' because they don't know how it's being defined in Maryland," Smigiel said.

Gun control proponents contend a limit on magazine size could at least hold down the number of casualties in the case of a mass shooting such as the one that occurred in Newtown, Conn. But Smigiel called the proposal "absolutely crazy."

"Why do the police have 20- and 30-round clips? Because the threat of a bad guy may be such that they need it," he said. "The only ones who will have it are the bad guys and the police."

Raabe said the magazine proposal has strong enough public support that it could win support from some Republicans.

"This is as close to consensus as you can come on such a controversial issue as guns," he said.

Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.