Gun debate sparks education, advocacy campaigns

As .223-caliber bullets from an assault-style rifle pinged a torso-shaped target, state Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. videotaped his latest pupil squeezing off rounds from a gun and magazine targeted to be banned in Maryland.

"You see why you wouldn't want to reload after 10 rounds?" he asked during a pause in the target practice.


The Eastern Shore Republican, twice named legislator of the year by a gun rights group, has over the years put an assault-style weapon into the hands of more than a dozen lawmakers on a private shooting range, hoping they will vote for gun rights if they are more familiar with firearms.

"I was born for this one," Smigiel said of the coming gun debate in Annapolis. "I'm going to fire this up."


Across the state, education and advocacy campaigns are under way by those hoping to pass some of the nation's strictest gun laws — and by others determined to stop them. The General Assembly is set to begin hearings this week on the most complicated and controversial gun legislation it has seen in more than a decade, a task that has sparked an intense effort to teach lawmakers about firearms.

A dormant gun control group called Marylanders To Prevent Gun Violence has been resurrected. The National Rifle Association, which according to records has not given to a Maryland political campaign since 2010, now has a strong lobbying presence in Annapolis.

Since the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school triggered a national debate about tougher gun laws, experts like Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, have been fielding inquiries from both Congress and various state legislatures whose work suddenly demands their expertise.

"I've almost entirely had to set aside everything else I was working on and do this almost nonstop," Webster said. "I have barely gotten any sleep."

The advocacy campaigns in Maryland are being waged both privately, like Smigiel's, and publicly, like Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's town hall meetings. Brown is traveling the state — he was in Baltimore last week, and will be in Largo Tuesday and Rockville Wednesday — to educate residents about Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposals to require a license for handgun purchases, expand background checks, ban the sale of assault weapons and limit magazines to 10 bullets.

The omnibus legislation, which includes school safety measures and provisions that would expand reporting about mental health care, is controversial enough that it may trigger a filibuster in the Maryland Senate, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate President Thomas Mike V. Miller, who said he considers the owner of Beretta USA both a constituent and a friend, said he will let the House of Delegates debate the bill first. In an interview, Miller criticized the recent passage of gun laws in New York as done "hastily."

"It needs to be done right," Miller said. "I really believe that if we go too far in these [laws], you would infringe upon weapons that are sold worldwide as hunting rifles."


Constituents have been vocal, too. Del. Kevin Kelly, a conservative Democrat considered an ally of gun rights groups, said he has received more than 3,700 individual e-mails — not form letters — about the proposals.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, meanwhile, has quietly formed a work group of 15 legislators. They have been briefed behind closed doors about existing laws by gun control experts who couldn't get lawmakers' attention until the Newtown, Conn., massacre that killed 20 first-graders and six educators.

"It's night and day after Newtown," said Webster, the Johns Hopkins expert, who gave a two-hour presentation to Busch's work group Thursday. "All of a sudden we're in some new political space. A lot of people were thinking, 'I want to do something, what can I do? '"

In Maryland, a recent poll showed 71 percent of voters favor limiting magazine capacity to 10 bullets, and 62 percent support an assault weapons ban.

On the first day of the General Assembly session in January, O'Malley predicted the ban would pass both chambers, and he received a standing ovation from many Democrats when he mentioned it in his State of the State speech last week. Miller said he would "make certain" a ban gets passed, and has said there's a need to "keep guns that we associate with thugs and drug dealers off the street."

Busch, whose work group will hear from gun manufacturers and gun control advocates, offered no predictions except: "Hopefully common sense will prevail."


For Smigiel, that common sense involves knowing about an AR-15 military-style rifle before passing a law to ban its sale.

"People who don't like the look of it are deciding what's illegal," Smigiel said on a recent excursion to a constituent's Kent Island home, where he has held a "BBQ, Bullets, and the Bay" fundraising event.

Inside the home's gun room, which has more than 100 firearms lining the walls, Smigiel instructed visitors that the proper term is "assault-style," not assault weapon. He explained that a pistol grip makes a gun easier to handle and therefore safer. An adjustable stock, he said, allows people with short arms to change the size of a gun.

Del. Cathleen M. Vitale, an Anne Arundel County Republican who accepted one of Smigiel's invitations, took her husband and teenaged son along for the day.

"It's an interesting debate, and it's going to get more interesting in the coming weeks," she said.

Del. Curtis A. Anderson, a Democrat who chairs the Baltimore City delegation, attended one of Smigiel's previous shooting events. He described the gun room as "something out of James Bond." And while the experience did not change his views, Anderson said, it helped him appreciate why certain people would want to keep certain weapons.


So far this year, only Republicans have accepted Smigiel's invitations, but he remains undaunted.

"Next time I go out," he said. "I'm going to take a bunch of Democrats."