Earlier this month, Harford County sheriff’s deputies showed up at the Bel Air doorstep of a convicted felon and, thanks to a tip and a search warrant, confiscated four handguns, nine rifles, six shotguns and dozens of boxes of ammunition. Under Maryland law, he wasn’t allowed to own any of them. So how did this happen? Authorities aren’t yet sure. It’s possible they were all purchased before his conviction. But it’s also possible, at least in regard to the rifles and shotguns, he was enabled by a loophole in state law. While purchasing a handgun in Maryland requires a background check (that would have revealed his felony conviction), buying a rifle or shotgun from an unlicensed dealer does not. That needs to end.
On Wednesday, opponents of gun violence were back in Annapolis, urging the House Judiciary Committee to require background checks for long guns. They were met, as usual, by gun rights advocates who could muster no counter-argument better than this: It would inconvenience Marylanders who have a legal right to own a gun. They also questioned how effectively it would deter violent crime. On the first gripe we have trouble shedding tears. Not that we are fond of government paperwork that would likely take minutes to complete, but because we have shed too many genuine tears for the victims of gun violence. That includes our five colleagues who died in a hail of shotgun blasts on June 28, 2018, at the Capital Gazette just a few miles from the State House.
As for its effectiveness, we see no downside to making it more difficult for the next Jarrod Ramos to acquire a weapon every bit as deadly as a handgun without a little more scrutiny. Background checks won’t keep all guns out of the hands of criminals but they surely can help. The federal background check on handgun purchases has reportedly denied sales to more than 3 million purchasers. That’s a lot of opportunities for gun violence that were inconvenienced if not outright prevented. In this regard, it’s not unlike licensing drivers. Scofflaws still sometimes drive without a license but it’s certainly better than having everyone driving without a license.
This move wouldn’t put Maryland at the vanguard of gun control in this country. Twelve states already have universal background checks for all gun purchases including Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Only Maryland and Pennsylvania live on this loophole island where certain rifle and shotgun sales are exempted. Why? Most likely because those two states have a long-standing respect for hunters and hunting. We would propose no new restrictions on the sport nor even on appropriate target shooting. And certainly not on constitutionally protected gun ownership. What we are enthusiastically endorsing is simply making sure that someone buying a gun, any kind of gun, isn’t a felon or otherwise restricted from owning one.
We are not so delusional as to believe the day this loophole is closed is the day Baltimore and other crime hot spots in this state will emerge violence-free. Maryland is already awash in firearms. And the chronic problems that contributed to, and continue to sustain, Baltimore’s high homicide rate certainly transcend the mere presence of these deadly weapons. Concentrated poverty, drug abuse, historic discrimination, insufficient economic and educational opportunities, the legacy of trauma and dysfunction, and on and on. But that’s not a good reason to leave let the loophole stand. People are fighting violent crime in this state tooth and nail from the police officers who put themselves in harm’s way to caregivers fighting to keep their families alive and unharmed, who are searching for solutions. For them, for the families and friends of innocent gun violence victims like our colleagues Gerald Fischman, Robert Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. you say you can’t stomach a background check before taking home your next shotgun?
Let House Bill 4 be approved by universal acclaim — perhaps in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. who would have turned 91 Jan. 15 but was killed nearly 52 years ago by a single Remington Model 760 rifle shot. Polls show Marylanders support background checks. Frankly, they always have. And those who find it “infringes” on their rights need to wake-up and see how their overblown complaints have gotten totally out of hand. In Virginia, the governor has declared a state of emergency. His modest gun control efforts (most of them already the law in 21 states and the District of Columbia) have provoked pro-gun groups into threatening behavior and raised the prospect of violence at a rally in Richmond on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, echoing the ugly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. It’s shameful, and now it’s up to Maryland to set a better example.