State and federal politicians have been scrambling for the last few weeks to react to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., with governors, congressmen and the president exploring new laws that might have prevented that tragic massacre. But today, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced the outlines of a package of legislation that would do much more than merely react to that terrible act. He pledged to take some of the steps that many of his peers are pursuing, such as a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, but also to pursue a comprehensive licensing system for handgun buyers. That last proposal will be difficult to enact, even in heavily Democratic Maryland, but it could be the most helpful step the legislature could take this year to stop the flow of illegal guns that contributes to hundreds of murders in Baltimore every year.
The details of Mr. O'Malley's proposal will be unveiled later this week, but he gave a preview while introducing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a summit of gun violence researchers at Johns Hopkins University, and it appears that the governor will seek a law similar to those that have helped reduce the practice of straw purchases in states like New York and New Jersey.
On Sunday, the governor's aides provided some specifics to the Washington Post, and it reported today that Mr. O'Malley will call for those who wish to purchase handguns — though not shotguns and rifles — to submit to digital fingerprinting by the state police, to complete a gun safety course and to undergo a background check in addition to the existing check required under state and federal law. The safety course is a welcome addition to the state's regulatory scheme, in that it could help prevent accidental injury and death. But the fingerprinting requirement is likely to dissuade straw purchasers — those who buy guns on behalf of criminals and others who could not pass a background check.
Evidence from other states backs up the notion that such a law would reduce the diversion of handguns to criminals in Maryland. Daniel Webster, the head of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Policy and Research and one of the leaders of this week's summit, has researched such laws extensively and has found that they show "very strong effects" on preventing intrastate gun trafficking, particularly when enacted as part of a comprehensive state-level regulatory scheme.
In a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Urban Health, Mr. Webster and colleagues from Hopkins and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst write that cities with the lowest rates of intrastate gun trafficking were all in states with strong systems of gun sales accountability measures, and four of the top five included purchase permit requirements similar to those Mr. O'Malley is proposing.
The researchers found that strong dealer oversight, such as state-level auditing of gun dealers, was also a powerful deterrent to intrastate trafficking. Maryland does not allow such audits, but key lawmakers, including state Sen. Brian Frosh and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, are renewing a push for such a law this year. We urge Governor O'Malley to join that effort.
The rest of the governor's package of gun legislation is also significant. He would seek a state-level ban on assault weapons and to limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, down from the present 20. He is proposing to invest more in school safety measures and mental health services. He will seek to improve information sharing to make sure that those whose mental health problems make them ineligible to purchase a gun are actually flagged in background checks, and he will try to expand the categories of those who are prohibited from owning guns.
The governor's announcement comes a day before Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to release a series of recommendations for national gun regulations, but considering the sway of the National Rifle Association in Washington, Annapolis lawmakers cannot sit back and wait for their federal counterparts to act. And given the daily toll of gun violence here, Maryland lawmakers need to take steps beyond what Congress is likely to accept.
That said, if Governor O'Malley had been interested merely in gaining what political points can be scored by focusing on gun control after Newtown, he could have gotten away with doing much less. As recently as last week, his public statements on the topic gave no indication that he intended to go so far as to propose a licensing system. To succeed in that effort will likely require all of his substantial powers of persuasion in the State House. But if the goal is prevent not only the next Newtown but also the next street corner murder in Baltimore, it is the right thing to do.
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