Gun control dominates race for Baltimore County executive even as office lacks say over weapons

Baltimore County’s Democratic voters are being slammed with information about gun control: fliers in their mailboxes, e-mails in their inboxes, ads on their TVs.

After a year when outrage swept the nation over mass shootings, regulating guns has become one of the top issues in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County executive.

But there’s one crucial fact lost amid the candidates’ claims — county executives have virtually no power over gun control.

Two of the three leading Democratic candidates seeking to run Maryland’s third largest jurisdiction — state Sen. Jim Brochin and former Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr. — have had to defend their past votes in the General Assembly on gun control bills.

And the third candidate, County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, has kept the issue alive by hammering Brochin’s record, highlighting his past support from the National Rifle Association. She also touted her sponsorship of a minor gun control bill that passed the county council.

Trumpeting gun control in a Democratic primary is a smart campaign strategy for rallying voters who are more liberal and supportive of weapons restrictions, especially after the procession of high-profile shootings across the nation, experts say.

“It’s a Democratic primary and most of the primary voters are going to be very liberal and support gun control,” said John Dedie, program coordinator for political science at the Community College of Baltimore County. “And primaries are about organization and turnout. They’re bringing this up — mainly Almond and Brochin — to gin up their base and get them excited.”

Vinny DeMarco, a veteran lobbyist who has helped pass state gun control laws, said the nation’s outrage has driven the issue to the forefront of Baltimore County’s race.

“All over the country now, people are talking about it and Baltimore County is a great example of how significant this is,” DeMarco said. “It’s part of a national change in the issue.”

Gun control first emerged in the Democratic primary back in April, with a flurry of letters to the editor in The Baltimore Sun. Then it came up at a candidates debate in April at Towson University.

Shortly after that debate, Almond called on Brochin to make a donation to a gun violence prevention group equal to the nearly $13,000 he had received years ago in campaign donations from gun-rights groups, including the NRA.

Brochin retorted that Almond should make a donation to an environmental group equal to the thousands of dollars she’s accepted over the years from developers.

Since then, the rhetoric has intensified.

At least two oversized pro-Almond mailers have criticized Brochin’s votes on gun bills and questioned whether he is a “real” Democrat. An e-mail blast from Almond’s campaign this week showed a composite picture of Brochin and an NRA office building, claiming he has an “A” rating from the NRA.

“I just think it’s important for the facts and the truth to come out,” Almond said.

Brochin responded with a TV commercial touting his votes for bills that banned many assault weapons and outlawed “bump stocks” like the one used in a mass shooting in Las Vegas last year. It also claims he has an “F” rating from the NRA.

Brochin thinks Almond is trying to draw attention away from issues that are tougher for her.

“Vicki is talking about it now because she doesn’t want to talk about pay-to-play and she doesn’t want to talk about giving tax breaks to developers,” Brochin said.

Asked to respond, Almond said: “It’s his diversionary tactic, quite frankly. It’s not mine.”

Brochin said the claim that he has an A rating from the NRA is a “blatant distortion.”

Brochin does not have a current rating from the NRA, which has not issued grades for county-level candidates this year.

In 2014, Brochin earned an “F” from the NRA.

But before that his grades were higher: an “A” in 2010, an “A” in 2006 and a “B” in 2002, according to the Law Office of J. William Pitcher, the local lobbying firm hired by the NRA in Annapolis. Brochin was endorsed by the NRA in 2006 and 2010.

DeMarco, the gun control lobbyist, is staying neutral in the campaign. But he said that Brochin’s record is “very weak,” especially considering he made a procedural vote in favor of continuing debate as opponents tried to keep the bill from going to a final vote in 2013.

Olszewski also has been criticized for his vote that year against the assault weapons ban when he was a state delegate.

He has said that he’s realized he made a mistake on that vote, and has largely avoided battling with the other two candidates on the issue.

While the other two candidates fight about guns, Olszewski has been trying to gain traction on issues that he said should be at the forefront for the county, including education, campaign finance reform and housing discrimination.

“I’m committed to both advocating for common-sense gun legislation at the national and state level, and acting locally where we can,” Olszewski said. “But also there are other issues that we have the strongest platform and vision for.”

State law gives counties little room to pass their own gun control laws.

Almond found one of the narrow exceptions in state law, successfully sponsoring a bill this spring that makes it a misdemeanor in Baltimore County to leave a loaded gun where a child aged 16 or 17 can access it. That’s tougher than the state law, which only regulates leaving a loaded gun where a child 15 or younger can find it. Olszewski testified in favor of the bill.

Almond named the bill “Leia’s law” after one of her granddaughters who was injured in an accidental shooting.

“I’m going to be pushing for more local gun regulations,” she said. “They may be small steps like with Leia’s law, but they’re going to be important ones.”

Despite the limits on the county passing its own laws, DeMarco said a county executive can use his or her position to influence state law. The late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, for example, testified in favor of the state’s assault weapons ban, DeMarco said.

“It’s also important as the signal it sends to legislators and members of Congress that people running for Baltimore County executive are battling over this,” DeMarco said. “It’s important.”

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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