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Maryland lawmakers consider how far to go in requiring background checks on rifles and shotguns

With less than one month to go in the General Assembly session, Maryland lawmakers still need to work out a thorny policy issue: How far should they extend a requirement for background checks on rifles and shotguns?

The House of Delegates and state Senate have approved different versions of a bill that would require private transfers of long guns to be subject to a background check. The differences are similar to differences in bills that were passed last year, when negotiations fizzled on the final day of the session.

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The lawmakers pushing the bills hope they have enough time this year to resolve those differences.

“I’m hopeful that it’s not going to die,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat. “I’m not hopeful that we are going to get the absolute strongest bill.”

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Current Maryland law requires background checks for all sales of handguns and when rifles and shotguns are sold by federally licensed dealers. But there is no requirement for a background check when long guns are sold by private individuals.

Advocates for gun control consider that “loophole” needs to be closed to establish universal background checks for all gun sales.

The advocacy group Moms Demand Action issued a statement this week calling the legislation “a new milestone in the fight to keep our families safe from gun violence.”

The legislation passed each chamber on largely party-line votes, with many Democrats in favor and Republicans and a few Democrats opposed. Both chambers passed the bills by wide enough margins that they could override any potential veto from Gov. Larry Hogan.

Hogan, a Republican, has not publicly offered a position on the background checks.

Broadly, both the House and Senate versions of the bill aim to close that loophole by requiring both parties to go to a licensed dealer and pay them to conduct a federal background check. The Senate version would require the checks for sales of long guns, while the House requires checks for both sales and loans.

Either version is untenable to gun ownership advocates such as Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue.

He argues that there’s no evidence to show that long guns acquired in private sales or loans are used to commit crimes at a high rate. And he believes that gun owners unwittingly would run afoul of the law because they wouldn’t know about it — though he also said the law would be difficult to enforce.

“What they’re doing is basically criminalizing sales that have been going on in this country for hundreds of years,” Pennak said.

Pennak also questioned how many licensed gun dealers would agree to facilitate the background checks. If few stores end up offering the service, then it would be difficult for private owners to sell or trade long guns legally.

Lawmakers have about four weeks until the General Assembly session adjourns April 6, known as “Sine Die” on the legislative calendar.

Pennak said he’s “very concerned” that lawmakers will resolve their differences before then.

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“Last year, they waited until Sine Die to try to reconcile it and time ran out,” he said. “This year, it’s a whole month before Sine Die, so they have plenty of time to try to carve out something to agree on.”

Democratic Sen. Susan Lee, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, is “hopeful and optimistic” a compromise can be struck. She said it’s important to make sure that anyone who buys a gun is subject to a background check to make sure they aren’t prohibited from buying a gun for reasons such as having a felony.

“We’ve got to do something. We can’t just have it the way it is right now,” she said. “I don’t want to hear about another tragedy where someone got a gun who shouldn’t have a gun.”

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