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Maryland must stay at the forefront of gun safety laws

Maryland has long touted its progressive stance on gun-safety laws, yet our state and cities are still plagued with gun violence. Baltimore alone experienced over 300 gun homicides in 2015. While many of our illegal guns come from out of state, where we can't control the gun laws, we can work to close loopholes and strengthen enforcement of our essential licensing and background check system here at home.

This legislative session, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are making gun violence prevention laws a priority once again. They have introduced a package of bills that will enforce a requirement that convicted domestic abusers and felons turn over their firearms, ban those on the terrorist watch list from owning guns and create weapon-free college campuses.

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Here's why those measures matter:

A gun in the home of a person with a history of domestic violence increases the risk of domestic homicide five times compared to a gun-free home, and those outside the home are placed in danger as well. Just last month, two Harford County sheriff's deputies were shot to death by a man with a history of domestic violence, and a Virginia police officer was killed on her first day at her job while responding to a domestic violence situation.

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Many states with a tradition of protecting gun owners' rights — Louisiana, South Carolina and Wisconsin to name a few — have recently strengthened their laws to protect victims of domestic violence against armed abusers. While Maryland's current law bans those convicted of domestic violence from owning a firearm, there is no process in the courts to inform offenders they must surrender their weapons nor a timeline for compliance. A bill introduced by Senate Majority Whip Jamie Raskin and Del. Will Smith changes that, encouraging enforcement of the law and ensuring that dangerous individuals will not be left armed with the most deadly personal weapons.

Another potentially lethal loophole in national law is the lack of gun ownership prohibition for those on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list, which was created in 2003 to track known or suspected terrorists and protect the American people. There are layers of thorough investigation and review from multiple government agencies to ensure that there is supported intelligence before putting someone in the database. It is therefore reasonable to believe that those listed in the database are dangerous and should not be allowed to buy or possess a firearm, yet more than 2,000 guns have been sold to people on the list over the past 11 years.

A bill in Maryland's gun safety package, sponsored by Sen. James Rosapepe and Del. Luke Clippinger, bans those on the list from purchasing a firearm in the state. Some opponents of the bill and the list have raised due process concerns. While our country always needs to balance citizens' civil liberties with public health and safety, the risk of someone on the list possessing and using a gun to horrific ends here in Maryland far outweighs the risk of someone mistakenly being placed on the list.

The final bill in the leadership package is sponsored by Sen. Richard Madaleno and Del. Ben Barnes; it prohibits weapons on public higher education campuses. Our colleges need to be a safe-haven for our young people to learn and grow without fear of lock-downs and shootings. An armed citizen has never stopped a mass shooting, so there is no need for our students or faculty to be armed. Allowing guns on campus could also confuse law enforcement officers if they need to respond to any active shooter situation that might arise.

Guns on college campuses also increase the likelihood of unintentional shootings and suicides. Suicide attempts with firearms have more than a 90 percent fatality rate. There are no second chances when a gun is in the mix. Young people are more prone to impulsive choices; there is a strong correlation between access to a gun and gun suicide.

As states like Texas pass laws to allow guns on college campuses, our leaders are making a statement that Maryland will stand above the misguided thinking that guns make us safer.

Leaders in the House and state Senate should be commended for highlighting and supporting gun safety legislation once again in Maryland, where all handgun purchasers must first be finger-printed and obtain a license from the State Police and where we are working to uphold a ban on assault rifles. Now it's up to the rest of the legislature to do their part by ushering these new bills into law.

Jen Pauliukonis is legislative director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence; her email is jen@mdpgv.org.

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