The Maryland Senate voted Thursday to approve Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun-control legislation, clearing the bill's biggest hurdle and sending it to the House where its passage would make Maryland's gun laws among the strictest in the nation.
The Senate voted 28-19 in favor of the Democratic governor's proposal, which would ban assault weapons, require residents to obtain a license before buying handguns and strengthen protections against purchases by the mentally ill. A pair of House committees were scheduled to take up their version of the bill Friday after three days of debate in the Senate.
"Violence is a cancer in our schools, in our homes and in our communities that doesn't just ravage the families and the victims, but the rest of us," state Sen. Roger Manno, Montgomery Democrat, said before Thursday's vote. "It erodes our society, and doing something about it is a choice that we have."
Maryland is now poised to become one of the first states to pass stricter gun laws in the wake of last year's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and it may not be the last. Democratic lawmakers in a number of states are proposing legislation to limit high-powered guns and keep handguns away from illegal straw purchasers and the mentally ill. They have taken the lead of President Obama, who called on Congress to pass tighter national gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, only to see efforts stalled by Republican resistance and fights over sequestration and Cabinet appointments.
Similar efforts are ongoing in states such as New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Colorado, where the state Senate is weighing a House-approved proposal to require broader background checks and tighter limits on magazine capacity.
Such proposals have been heavily criticized by Republicans and some conservative and rural Democrats who say they will inconvenience law-abiding gun owners while doing little to deter criminals.
"My constituents think this bill will adversely affect them a lot more than it will the criminals," Maryland state Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, Anne Arundel Republican, told The Associated Press.
Maryland's gun control laws are already considered among the nation's toughest.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Maryland's gun laws in 2011 as the seventh strictest, behind California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and Hawaii.
"It's going to be stronger than the laws were before in Maryland," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, who has spoken in favor of stricter gun laws. "But still, if you are someone who want to purchase a handgun as a law-abiding adult, there's not a lot of hurdles placed before you."
The House Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees will hold a joint hearing Friday on the House version of the bill.
The legislation is expected to receive less opposition in the House than in the Senate, where its most vocal and influential opponent was Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat, voted for the bill after expressing concerns that its $100 license-to-purchase fee was too burdensome and that its required fingerprinting for purchasers could violate the Second Amendment.
A Senate committee lowered the licensing fee to $50 and lowered 10-year renewal fees to $20 but chose to keep the fingerprinting requirement.
Mr. Miller voted in favor of a failed amendment to eliminate the provision but ultimately supported the bill.
In the House, Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, has said he expects to have at least the necessary 71 votes to pass the bill.
Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said he expects the bill to pass, even though Democrats from conservative and rural areas could receive pressure to vote against it.
"Between the two chambers, the House has been the more progressive of the two," he said. "Getting out of the Senate was a tremendous victory for O'Malley."
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