Legislation to ban assault weapons like the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle used in the Newtown school massacre will be revived in Annapolis when the General Assembly convenes next month, according to leading lawmakers pushing to make the change.
The ban is among several gun control proposals that have languished in the Assembly but will take on greater priority as Marylanders grapple with the aftermath of the nation's second-deadliest school shooting, gun control advocates said.
"This is an absolute tipping point," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who plans to introduce a broad state-level assault weapons ban. "If we don't act now, it is hard to see when we ever would act on this."
Other proposals under discussion include giving state police greater access to mental health records as they determine who can purchase firearms and crafting a list of criteria that gun owners must meet before they can carry a concealed weapon — a recognition by many lawmakers that a federal court could strike down Maryland's restrictive right-to-carry law.
Currently, a gun owner must show a "good and substantial reason" for carrying a concealed firearm to get a permit to do so in Maryland. About 12,700 of the permits have been issued.
The law is being challenged, and similar ones have been struck down in other parts of the country.
A number of Maryland elected officials called for enhanced gun control Monday, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, who called for a federal prohibition on military-style weapons. Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz also urged ahalt to the sale of assault weapons, among other changes.
Some state lawmakers also want to give the state police more authority to regulate gun stores.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said Monday he would look at ways to improve gun control and gun safety, but he did not endorse any specific proposals. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch said gun control would be "looked at" during the coming legislative session, while aides to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller did not respond to a request for comment. All three men are Democrats.
Other gun control ideas are likely to surface in coming days. Several lawmakers contacted Monday said they spent the weekend brainstorming with colleagues or discussing with constituents ways to prevent mass shootings.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he briefly considered hosting a rally to show support for Newtown victims but instead plans to host a town hall meeting on gun control.
Any proposals are sure to encounter resistance in Maryland, which has not passed any major gun control legislation in more than a decade. "It will be a brouhaha," predicted Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. "Everyone will come in screaming. But I do think something needs to be done."
Maryland has some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the country, supporters acknowledged. Gun buyers must be 21 or over and wait seven days before making a purchase while the state police perform a criminal background check. Fourteen factors prohibit gun ownership — including a history of violence or drug or alcohol abuse. The state already bans more than a dozen semi-automatic "assault pistols," including the Uzi. Magazine rounds on semi-automatic weapons are limited to 20 bullets. A rifle used in Friday's shootings carried 30, authorities have said.
Marylanders are allowed to own or purchase 45 different types of semi-automatic weapons — guns where another bullet is automatically loaded into a chamber after being fired. The list incudes the Bushmaster rifle used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, along with the AK-47 and the Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle.
"There is no reason anyone needs to have a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle," said Raskin, who plans to introduce the ban when the annual 90-day legislative session opens Jan. 9. "That is just a killing machine. We can get rid of military-style assault weapons in civil society without infringing on anyone's Second Amendment rights."
Similar legislation was introduced as recently as 2010 but died in the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. This time, the proposal faces better odds, said Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. He pointed out that there have been a number of mass shootings since then, and that the composition of the committee has changed. Frosh plans a news conference this week unveiling a package of gun control legislation including the assault weapons ban.
Leading the opposition in the coming session will be Del. Michael D. Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican whose Facebook page includes a photograph of him holding an assault rifle.
"People will try to politicize this and pass anti-Second Amendment legislation that will further create problems for the innocent and the law abiding," Smigiel said Monday, saying the Connecticut rampage should instead lead lawmakers to provide more access to mental health care.
State police access to mental health records is expected to be an issue in Annapolis. Though the department is charged with doing background checks, it does not have access to many mental health records, making it difficult to assess the mental illness history of an applicant, said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.
Under current law, the Maryland State Police, which regulates purchases of certain guns — mostly handguns and assault weapons — checks with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to determine whether a person applying to buy a regulated gun has ever been in a state hospital for a month. That can make someone ineligible to buy certain weapons, although former patients also can be cleared by a psychiatrist.
The General Assembly earlier this year established a task force to study the issue of giving the police more access to the records. It is expected to make recommendations soon.
"If we could address, or begin to address, the issue of access to weapons by individuals with mental health issues, I would consider that an accomplishment," said Del. Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who proposed the task force.