Maryland senators alternatively questioned, challenged and heralded Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun-control bill for more than two hours Tuesday, a prelude to a debate expected to stretch through the week as lawmakers wrestle over whether to enact some of the country's strictest gun laws.
Senators argued at length over whether to require a license to buy a handgun — a provision gun-control experts consider essential to stemming gun violence in Maryland but that opponents find unfair.
While proponents say requiring fingerprints and training for a license makes it less likely someone would buy a gun only to pass it off to a criminal, Sen. E.J. Pipkin called licensing "a solution to a problem that doesn't exist in Maryland."
Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, discounted research by a Johns Hopkins policy expert on whom Democratic leaders on gun control have relied. Pipkin said the $1 billion New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a gun-control advocate, has donated to the university should lead the public to question whether the research is neutral.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, asked whether it was worth imposing the inconvenience of requiring fingerprints to buy a handgun. "I don't know if the juice is worth the squeeze," he said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a critic of fingerprinting, acknowledged later that Maryland already requires fingerprints for a host of other purposes — to get a child care license or, in his district of Calvert County, to tell someone's fortunes.
Miller added that he expects the effort to remove fingerprinting from the law to be unsuccessful, and predicted that "people are going to consider it an obstruction."
The two-hour discussion was the first floor debate of O'Malley's gun control bill, which also calls for limiting magazines to 10 bullets and banning the sale of military-style assault rifles.
A Senate committee has already suggested 20 amendments to the bill, which drew more than 1,000 people to a hearing earlier this month. Senate leaders hope to take their final vote on the proposal by Friday, sending it to the House of Delegates. The House has its gun control hearing Friday.
The licensing provision has strong support among Maryland voters, according a Washington Post poll released Tuesday that found 85 percent of people back licensing.
Although Senate leaders were initially optimistic they could pass a gun bill and then turn attention to voting on death penalty repeal as early as Wednesday, they are now lining up votes to avoid a filibuster on the gun bill. Death penalty talks are expected to get pushed to Friday at the earliest.
Senators also discussed whether efforts to keep guns away from some people with mental illnesses go far enough to protect the public — or go too far, potentially discouraging people from seeking help.
"The question is, who among us should not have access to firearms because of a mental illness?" said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat who is chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
"We also don't want barriers to people seeking treatment," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Republican who said the prohibitions were too broad.
Debate is expected to resume early Wednesday and span at least two days.