WASHINGTON — A Maryland advocacy group is seeking to inject gun control into the contest to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, calling on congressional candidates to support a federal handgun licensing bill that was approved by state lawmakers three years ago.
In a letter to House and Senate nominees, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence asked candidates on Monday to co-sponsor a bill that would encourage states to require handgun purchasers to obtain a license, including at gun shows. The Maryland General Assembly passed such a requirement in 2013, months after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The state's leading gun control group does not endorse candidates for federal office, but the politics of the letter are clear: Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic nominee for Senate, is the lead sponsor of the federal legislation while Del. Kathy Szeliga, the Republican nominee, voted against the state version of the bill.
"Maryland is not an island. Forty-four percent of guns used to commit crimes in Maryland are from out-of-state," the group writes in its letter. "Although crimes committed with guns from Maryland are down, gun violence overall is on the rise in Baltimore. This problem requires a federal solution."
The letter was also sent to House candidates, but their responses are more predictable in most cases. It is Szeliga, running a statewide campaign in a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1980, who has the most at stake on the issue.
Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In his 2014 election, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan largely sidestepped the issue of gun control, and other social issues that have divided the Republican Party. He has said he would not scale back the 2013 state law, but he also has expressed skepticism that tough gun control laws are having much of an impact.
"California has the toughest laws in the country. We probably have the second toughest. It hasn't stopped us. We have more than 315 murders here in Baltimore City, we had a tragedy in California," Hogan said in December in response to the San Bernadino killings. "We've got to come up with better answers."
Advocates point to a 2015 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research that found a 1995 Connecticut law requiring a permit and background check to purchase a handgun was associated with a 40 percent reduction in firearm-related homicides. The center found the number of guns used in a crime within a year of their retail sale in Maryland by someone other than the purchaser — which can be a sign of a straw sale — dropped by more than 75 percent since the state law went into effect.
There has been little political appetite in Washington to strengthen gun control laws, but the issue has been central in the presidential election this year. The National Rifle Association endorsed presumed GOP nominee on Friday, prompting a criticism from Democrat Hillary Clinton.