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City leaders frustrated over loss of stricter gun legislation

Baltimore's top cop has made no secret he wants to rid the city's mean streets of "bad guys with guns."

He's railed against "morons" who pack heat, complained that the courts catapult criminals from handcuffs to freedom and grumbled about the failures of ordinary citizens to take responsibility for the safety of their city.

Now, lawmakers in Annapolis — despite lobbying by the city's chief prosecutor, police commissioner and mayor — managed, with just 15 minutes to spare on the last day of the legislative session, to shelve a bill to toughen Maryland's gun laws.

It was the sixth consecutive year elected representatives shot down a proposal to broaden the ban on using a handgun in the commission of a crime to include shotguns, rifles and assault weapons.

But this loss was far more bitter: for the first time since 2004, the bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee. That happened by the narrowest margin, and close to 10 p.m. Monday. And with just two hours before the final gavel, there was little time for more wheeling and dealing.

At 11:45 p.m., Del. Curt Anderson, the chair of the city delegation, said Baltimore's mayor called the House speaker's office and pleaded for help (the mayor's spokesman said she can't recall the precise time of the call).

By then it was too late.

The bill died because time had run out.

Critics say that was the plan all along.

"I'm disappointed," said Anderson, a Democrat who sponsored the gun bill, which had support from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors across the state. "We worked hard at it."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III had testified that more than a quarter of his cops' gun arrests in 2009 involved long guns. He used his blunt, plain-spoken style to warn delegates about getting lost "in the philosophical hoo-ha" of the gun control debate.

The lawmakers got lost in the hoo-ha.

But what law enforcement officials and Anderson say really killed this proposed law was Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.'s decision to combine the widely supported gun bill with a similar — but widely unpopular — gun bill.

Vallario is a defense attorney overseeing a committee filled with defense lawyers. Hehas had run-ins with city leaders — two years ago, they complained he treated them rudely — and he cast the 12th vote to push the combined bill package out of committee with a favorable recommendation.

Vallario was out of town and his office said he couldn't be reached last week, which meant I couldn't ask him whether he committed legislative sleight-of-hand by combining the two bills, knowing that would kill the package, and gave it his stamp of approval to move out of committee to make it appear that he fully supported the legislation and had nothing to do with its demise.

Officials muted their public criticism to avoid angering Vallario. They also consider it a victory that the chairman, known as the great bill-killer, even moved the legislation out of committee instead of burying it.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said the city "did make some progress" with the gun bill this year by getting bipartisan support. He noted that the bill got Vallario's go-ahead at the last minute, but O'Doherty said "it probably would have been helpful to have this bill get to the floor before " the session's midnight deadline.

O'Doherty said Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who personally lobbied Vallario to pass this bill, will use "every opportunity to strengthen the penalties for felons using illegal guns. It is a critical priority for the mayor."

The two bills that Vallario combined appear at first glance to be a perfect marriage.

The first and widely supported bill would have extended the ban on using a handgun in the commission of a crime to long guns. That would mean a man who robs a convenience store with a shotgun and a man who commits the holdup with a handgun face the same penalties. Even gun-rights advocates testified in support of this legislation, and it had a Republican sponsor on the Senate side, Larry E. Haines from Baltimore and Carroll counties.

The second bill, not widely supported, would have broadened the law banning a felon from possessing a handgun to all firearms, including shotguns and rifles.

That angered Republicans and conservative Democrats, who worried that convicted felons who grabbed their daddies' shotgun from the pickup truck gun rack to hunt in Western Maryland might find themselves in the same prison cell as a drug dealer who shot up a corner in East Baltimore. The penalties for both laws carry mandatory five-year prison terms without the possibility of parole.

Vallario has made it known he detests mandatory sentences. So do some prosecutors, who argue that locking in five-year sentences for gun offenders takes away any incentive for plea bargains because defendants will get the same sentence whether they admit guilt or take their chances with a jury. As a result, they all go to trial, clogging the system with cases that are, generally, slam-dunks for convictions.

Vallario offered a change on the gun possession bill: a three- to 15-year prison sentence that gives judges discretion to ease the burden on felons who hunt caught up in a provision designed to curb inner-city street violence, and to throw the book at violent offenders.

Although these bills got out of Vallario's committee with a favorable recommendation, they still had to be presented to the Democratic Caucus. There, Anderson said he met unexpectedly stiff opposition from African-American women from Prince George's County. They objected, saying that the proposed bill would put more black males into prison.

Never mind that Anderson, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who worked late into Monday night to appease Vallario's concerns, and Rawlings-Blake are all black. Anderson described the caucus debate as heated and volatile, and there wasn't enough time for proper discussion.

The popular "gun use" bill became collateral damage to the unpopular "gun possession" bill. And city leaders will have to go back next year for Round 7.

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