Maryland's model for gun regulation

Tomorrow, Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign into law the most comprehensive gun control legislation Maryland has seen in at least 25 years, a bill that will not only help guard against a mass shooting incident, like December's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but will also help fight the day-to-day violence that plagues Baltimore and other communities. The bill has become doubly important with the failure — at least for the moment — of attempts to tighten gun laws on the federal level, both because it will make Marylanders safer and because it can serve as a model for other states as they seek ways to address gun violence.

The bill, which was the centerpiece of Mr. O'Malley's agenda in this year's General Assembly session, was watered down only slightly by the legislature, and in some respects was improved. It bans a variety of assault weapons, limits ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds, tightens the standards by which someone can be banned from purchasing a gun because of mental illness and, perhaps most crucially, institutes a licensing system that requires prospective handgun buyers to provide their fingerprints and undergo training. Previously, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence had placed Maryland in the third tier of states for the effectiveness of its gun laws; these measures should elevate it to near the top of the rankings.

Despite the use of assault weapons with large ammunition magazines in the recent mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., Congress showed almost no appetite for reviving the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 or for limiting the size of clips. Despite polling showing that as much as 90 percent of the public supports closing the loophole that allows private sales at gun shows, over the Internet and elsewhere to take place without a required background check, and despite the bipartisan effort of pro-gun Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to craft compromise legislation on the issue, that loophole remains in federal law as well.

But like Maryland, Connecticut and New York enacted strict assault weapons bans. Those states and Colorado enacted limits on magazine sizes. Rhode Island legislators are considering assault weapons and magazine size bills right now. Colorado, Connecticut and Delaware passed universal background checks. (Maryland and New York already had them.) Delaware and Maryland both enacted reporting requirements for lost or stolen guns. New Jersey is considering a measure to strengthen its registration system for gun buyers and, like Maryland, to require firearms training.

To be sure, some deeply pro-gun states actually expanded firearm rights — South Dakota, for example, decided to allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. But overall, the increase in gun control measures considered by state legislatures this year far outstripped the rise in pro-gun bills, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Considering how little momentum gun control advocates had on the state level in recent years, even in liberal states like Maryland, that is progress.

There is reason to believe the trend will continue. Some state legislators were no doubt expecting the federal government to take action after Newtown, and now that it has failed to do so, the urgency to consider enhanced background checks and other measures on the state level will increase.

Because guns can and do move across state lines, federal regulations are the ideal. But state-level laws do have an effect. Research from the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health has found evidence that purchaser registration requirements reduce straw purchases, prevent guns from falling into the hands of criminals and reduce gun violence. Requiring fingerprinting as part of the process increases the usefulness of background checks because some of the databases officials use include them. That increases the chances that those who are ineligible to purchase guns will be flagged — and decreases the chance that law-abiding gun buyers will. And the new mental health-related gun laws Maryland passed are likely to reduce the suicide rate.

These new laws will not solve the problem of gun violence in Maryland, and no measure can guarantee that we won't ever face a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary. But over time, they will help. And perhaps just as importantly, they will keep up the momentum in other states and Congress so that one day we can strike a sensible balance nationwide between the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the need to keep our communities safe.

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