By LUCAS HIGH
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – The capital became the epicenter of the ongoing national gun control debate Wednesday as Gov. Martin O’Malley testified in front of Senate lawmakers regarding his proposed legislation that, if passed, would make Maryland’s gun laws some of the strictest in the country.
“We choose to take on gun violence because every life is precious, because every life is needed,” O’Malley said.
As O’Malley testified, and legislators debated, the National Rifle Association and conservative state legislators drew hundreds of anti-gun control protesters to a raucous rally denouncing the proposed bills as a violation of the Second Amendment.
Gun control and firearm-related violence have taken center stage in both national and state politics following December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Lawmakers, led by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D- Montgomery, heard testimony on four gun control bills that would make it more difficult for “straw purchasers” to buy firearms on behalf of criminals, strengthen handgun licensing requirements, increase penalties for the use of specific types of armor-piercing ammunition during the commission of a crime and reduce the maximum ammunition capacity for magazines from 20 to 10.
By far the most controversial piece of legislation was SB 281, which would ban possession of semi-automatic assault weapons.
The tougher licensing requirement also drew the ire of opponents because it would require digital fingerprinting for handgun purchases.
The legislation, heard by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, constitutes a “comprehensive approach” to gun control, O’Malley said.
Combined, the bills aim to improve the state’s firearm licensing procedures, promote gun safety and keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of criminals, O’Malley said.
“There is no human tragedy worse than the violent taking of a child’s life,” O’Malley said. “We are losing far too many citizens to gun violence.”
Along with the new firearm restrictions, O’Malley vowed to reduce gun violence by devoting resources to mental health services and creating a center for early crisis intervention.
“This is not about ideology, this is about public safety,” O’Malley said.
Delegate Patrick McDonough, R- Baltimore County, who opposes O’Malley’s measures, called the mass of anti-gun control protesters “Whacko-ville,” self-consciously poking fun at the way he believes gun supporters are perceived by some.
As the hearings got underway, the throng of protesters moved from the shadow of the State House to the entrance of the Senate building. Hundreds more concerned citizens, the vast majority of whom oppose O’Malley’s proposed bills, queued up in a line that snaked through the building to sign up to testify in the hearings.
One by one, conservative lawmakers, many of whom said they are avid shooters, stepped onto the podium in the center of the rally to oppose the governor and Democrats in the General Assembly.
“They want to define assault weapons not by performance characteristics, but by aesthetics,” said Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Upper Shore. “People that know nothing about firearms should say nothing about firearms.”
Inside the committee room, Tom Morris Jr., a senior correspondent for the television program America’s Most Wanted, also lobbied lawmakers to reject the legislation.
“Hysteria is ruling the debate,” Morris said. “So much in the bills is detached from firearm reality.”
He urged senators to stop before pushing forward with the legislation and “ask (themselves) if this bill will make our state safer.”
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testified that the bills would provide a “balanced, common sense approach” to reducing gun violence and promoting safety, while “protect(ing) the rights of individuals who choose to, or choose not to, own firearms.”
Nothing in the bills change a citizen’s ability to defend his home from violent intruders, said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger. “However, we should be able to find a place where the Second Amendment has reasonable limitations.”