Maryland's gun control debate drew more than 2,000 people to Annapolis on Friday as the House of Delegates took up the governor's bill to ban the sale of assault weapons and impose some of the nation's strictest licensing requirements.
People arrived as early as 7 a.m., and some stayed into the night as testimony went past 3 a.m. More than 1,300 people signed up to testify at the House hearing on Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal, overwhelmingly against it. A mid morning rally to support the plan drew a crowd that State House officals estimated at 1,000 people.
"All of these reforms just might save the lives of little boys and little girls, of moms and dads, of sisters and brothers," O'Malley told the joint hearing of two House committees. "We can and must do more."
The National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist in Annapolis, Shannon Alford, told lawmakers that the organization objects to the entire package, which it says represses gun ownership and threatens an individual's right to self-defense.
"A criminal does not ask permission before attacking your family," she said. "A citizen should not have to ask permission from the state of Maryland before protecting her family."
The Senate passed a modified version of O'Malley's plan Thursday.
Friday's hearing was the second such event to swamp the capital with impassioned pleas to either leave Maryland's already strong gun laws alone or to strengthen them after December's mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
Political leaders, state's attorneys and some religious leaders joined O'Malley in urging lawmakers to push forward with the plan.
Sheriffs from rural areas, as well as gun club owners, gun manufacturers and sharpshooters, told delegates the proposal would infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens without making anyone safer.
Opponents have planned a gun rights rally for Tuesday.
Some mental health experts cautioned that provisions aimed at keeping guns away from dangerous people with mental illnesses were written too broadly and could stigmatize those who need help. They argued that, in some cases, patients could retain their gun rights only by refusing treatment.
"We do not want to make people with mental illnesses targets," said Josh Cohen, president of the Maryland Psychological Association. "People who are voluntarily committing themselves to treatment should not end up on the registry."
The bill would ban the sale of 45 assault-type rifles and limit magazines to 10 bullets, half the current cap. People who already own a newly banned gun could keep it but would need to register it with the Maryland State Police. The measure would also require any guns purchased outside Maryland to be registered in the state within 30 days.
Gun rights advocates have objected most strongly to requiring a license to buy a handgun, a process that requires giving fingerprints to state police and completing a hands-on safety training course. Five states and the District of Columbia have such licensing programs.
Advocates say they help prevent criminals from getting guns and call licensing the most effective provision in O'Malley's gun control package. Opponents consider it an infringement of Second Amendment rights.
Police shut down several streets around the State House. Crowds were ushered into Lowe House Office Building rooms where the debate was broadcast over a closed-circuit television system. Signed-up witnesses who had hundreds of people in line ahead of them watched the hearing on giant screens, often jeering at the bill's supporters and cheering for fellow opponents.
Aides pushed cart after cart of written testimony through the halls. Most of those signed up to testify were opponents, committee staff said.
A director of gun manufacturer and distributor Beretta U.S.A. Corp. lodged more complaints about the proposal, saying the limit on magazine sizes would prevent the company from testing pistols it makes for the Army. Jeffrey K. Reh said the company has put its expansion plans on hold while it waits to see if Maryland bans some of its products.
Before the hearing began, gun control advocates waved signs and danced to the song "Waiting on the World to Change" as they readied for the rally. In addition to O'Malley, Lt. Gov Anthony G. Brown, other elected officials, parents, religious leaders and other advocates spoke.
Linda Silva of Kent Island waved a sign that read, "Guns are killing our kids!"
"There's been too many tragedies and people need to step up and have their voices heard," she said.
Jesse Watson, wearing a hunter's camouflage jacket, carried a sign demanding to be allowed to protect his family with an assault rifle. He waited in a line stretched around a House office building to urge delegates to defeat the proposal.
"They work for us," said Watson, an auto body mechanic from Aberdeen. "We're their boss. I don't see why they can force this down our throats."
Elementary school teacher Robert Richardson, 28, handed out stickers calling the Second Amendment a civil right. He said he takes offense at lawmakers who have used the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut as a way to promote stricter gun laws.
"I don't think this bill would help school safety," said Richardson, who said that if the law allowed, he would carry a firearm at the Howard County school where he teaches. "I was teaching two first-grade classes when Sandy Hook happened. The only thing I could think was that if someone came in and started shooting, there was nothing I could have done."
Mary Silva, no relation to fellow rally participant Linda Silva, came to Annapolis for the third time this week. She waved a sign supporting the fingerprinting requirement to get a handgun license.