The centerpiece of Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun control bill survived the Maryland Senate intact Wednesday, though opponents vowed to keep fighting the proposal to give the state some of the nation's strictest gun laws.
A new licensing provision at the heart of O'Malley's bill would require handgun buyers to give their fingerprints to the state police and to complete a training course. The law also would ban the sale of assault weapons and further limit access to guns by people with some mental illnesses.
Gun control advocates consider licensing the most effective measure to stem gun violence. Opponents consider it an assault on Second Amendment rights.
On Wednesday night, the Senate gave the bill preliminary approval, clearing it to go to the floor for a final vote as soon as Thursday. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said many improvements had been made and that "both sides feel more comfortable with the bill."
Sen. Brian Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the floor debate, called licensing "the most important part" of the bill. "This will save lives," he said. Experts have told lawmakers that states with strict licensing laws have lower rates of gun deaths, in part because requiring a license makes it less likely someone will buy a firearm on behalf of a criminal.
But Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader, said it was unfair to force law-abiding citizens give fingerprints to police in order to exercise their constitutional right to own a gun. "Please don't do this," Pipkin said. "Please don't do it."
Other opponents likened the requirements to a poll tax whose cost and inconvenience impinges on constitutional rights.
"They feel it is a chilling effect," said Sen. Christopher Shank, a Republican from Washington County. "It is a gradual erosion, one more step to confiscation."
In the first major political test of licensing, a divided Senate chamber took two close votes to retain the fingerprinting requirement. The narrow margin of support raised questions about whether the measure's advocates have enough votes to cut off a filibuster.
After the Senate adjourned about 9:15 p.m., Miller declined to speculate on whether opponents would filibuster or whether he could muster the 29 votes needed to close debate. Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, said opponents would talk as long as they could but predicted the majority Democrats would eventually prevail.
"Miller's threatening everybody," she said.
During the daylong amendment process, lawmakers narrowed a broad prohibition that would have forbade gun ownership for people who voluntarily spent 30 days in a mental health facility.
Under the bill, anyone involuntarily committed to mental health facility for any length of time would be disqualified from buying a shotgun, rifle or handgun in Maryland.
Current state law prohibits gun sales to about 50,000 Marylanders who have stayed at least 30 days in a state mental health facility. O'Malley's proposal would have expanded that to include a 30-day stay in any facility, drawing concerns that the time period was arbitrary and would discourage people from seeking help for illnesses unlikely to be linked to violence, such as eating disorders.
"It has no relation to the dangerousness of anyone," said Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who pushed to allow people who have been voluntarily committed for 30 days to have access to weapons.
Instead, senators voted to prohibit guns from people who have been admitted to a mental health facility under an emergency petition that deems the patient a threat to themselves or others.
"The interaction of mentally ill, dangerous people with firearms is a toxic, combustible combination that we have seen cause alarm across the country" said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Senators decided to make the governor's proposed ban on military-style assault rifles match the federal ban that expired in 2004. O'Malley had proposed more restrictive language. Miller suggested that later debate could further curtail which weapons would be banned.
Some of the bill's proposed rules related to handgun licenses were scaled back; senators reduced the licensing fee from $100 to $25, halved the training requirement to a four-hour course and doubled the time period before a license expires to 10 years. A state analysis based on the $100 fee found the plan would generate twice as much money for the state as it cost to run the program, but the lower fees suggest the program may be a net loss for the state.
The bill's opponents also reduced penalties for failing to register an already-owned assault weapon after the ban would take effect. Instead of making it a crime, the new version of the bill would allow for a fine of $230 that could escalate to $1,000.
Another amendment adopted by the Senate early Wednesday would allow gun manufacturers, including Beretta USA in Prince George's County, to continue building assault weapons in Maryland even if it's illegal to sell them in the state.
Thousands of people are expected to arrive in Annapolis on Friday as the House of Delegates begins hearings on the governor's proposal.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.