Hundreds of pro-gun activists again swarmed Annapolis on Tuesday in hopes of turning the tide against gun control.
Polls show that banning assault weapons and requiring a license to buy a handgun have broad support among Marylanders, but gun rights supporters such as Jerry Carey have three times flocked to the state capital to urge defeat of those proposals and others.
"My wife tells me I should quit this and go back to work," said Carey, a self-employed 68-year-old from Frederick who attended the latest gun rights rally Tuesday. "I can't. This is more important."
Gov. Martin O'Malley's sweeping gun control bill would give Maryland one of the strictest gun laws in the country. Until the governor made that proposal, Carey had visited the capital just once, back in the 1970s. Tuesday, during Carey's third visit this year, he distributed fliers for a new "Marylanders Defending the 2nd Amendment" political action committee.
O'Malley's bill has already passed the Maryland Senate by a wide margin. A House of Delegates committee is expected to vote on the measure next week.
At Tuesday's rally outside the State House, cheers went up as the National Rifle Association's chief Annapolis lobbyist, Shannon Alford, told the crowd, "We're going to do this all day long, all session long, until someone listens."
John Balazek, 48, was among those in the crowd who says he doubts the gun rights rallies will be enough to sway enough lawmakers to defeat the bill. "The fix is in," said Balazek, a sheet metal worker from La Plata. "But this proves they are governing against the will of the people."
Del. Kevin Kelly, a veteran Allegany County Democrat and ardent gun rights advocate, said, "The harsh dynamic of this is that it's going to pass." But the massive turnout of opponents, Kelly said, may create a better climate for critics to win concessions on provisions they consider onerous.
The hearings have concluded on the governor's gun legislation, but about 550 people signed up to weigh in during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on more than 24 other gun-related bills.
Sam Cook, a Department of General Services official in Annapolis, estimated that 700 people came to Annapolis for the pro-gun rally or to testify at the hearing. Officials are bracing for another crowd Wednesday when a Senate committee takes testimony on a different set of lower-profile gun bills.
Patrick Shomo, president of Maryland Shall Issue, a gun rights group, said the breadth of O'Malley's gun proposal sparked passion from people who would otherwise not wade into the political process.
"We're not against background checks, we're not against keeping firearms from people who shouldn't have them, we're not against teaching people to keep their guns safe," Shomo said.
"This may be the opening bell and the movement will grow," he added, acknowledging that for this year, gun control supporters "have the wind at their back, that's for sure."
Two January polls found broad support for gun control. A survey by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks concluded that 62 percent of Maryland residents supported a ban on assault weapons, and 71 percent favored limiting magazines to 10 bullets. A Gonzales Research poll found that 58 percent favored a ban on assault weapons. And a February poll by The Washington Post found that 85 percent supported handgun licensing.
But at a House hearing Friday, gun rights activists vastly outnumbered gun control supporters. Of the 1,300 people signed up to testify, only about 30 spoke in favor of the bill, legislative aides said afterward.
As that hearing continued in the night, Bob Finson, an engineer from Waldorf, flipped on the Internet streaming of testimony and left it on for four hours.
"I couldn't stop watching," he said. "It wasn't just the NRAs or the yahoos, but there were so many regular people. I felt there's something big going on here, and I want to be a part of it."
Finson said Tuesday that he's never been involved with a cause and doesn't belong to an organization besides his homeowner's association. But said he took the day off from work to Tuesday to visit his lawmakers and testify.
"This bill is a done deal, it's passing," he said. But, he added, "It's important to be here and say something."