Sunday, November 30, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — With a federal prohibition on sale of military-style semiautomatic rifles set to expire next year, gun control advocates in the Maryland legislature plan to push for a state ban during the legislative session that begins in January.

“I doubt very much that Congress will reauthorize the federal ban,” said Delegate Neil Quinter, Howard County Democrat.

He and state Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery County Democrat, plan to introduce companion bills in the House and Senate to ban weapons they say serve no legitimate purpose.

“They are especially deadly and are designed for inflicting lethal harm on a large number of people at once,” Mr. Quinter said.

Opponents and supporters of gun control are considering introducing other bills that would expand or restrict the rights of gun owners, but bills dealing with semiautomatic rifles and shotguns are expected to be at the center of the battle over guns during the 2004 General Assembly session.

A state police report questioning the usefulness of Maryland’s ballistic fingerprinting law for handguns may forestall an attempt to expand that law to include long guns. State Sen. Jennie Forehand, Montgomery County Democrat, said she is considering such a bill.

Supporters of gun rights would like to repeal the ballistic fingerprinting law and pass a “right to carry” bill that would allow Marylanders to carry concealed weapons without a permit. But given the legislative bent toward gun control, there may be no effort to increase gun rights.

“I think we are realists. We know what can get passed and what can’t,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Somerset County Republican.

Delegate Carmen Amedori, Carroll County Republican, said she is considering introducing “right to carry” legislation to repeal the law requiring a state police permit to carry a weapon.

But Mrs. Amedori said that “the biggest thing on the radar screen is the assault weapons ban. We want to make sure that doesn’t reach the governor’s desk.”

Even if Democratic supporters get the assault weapons bill through the legislature, it might be a candidate for a gubernatorial veto, aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say.

“He believes that a so-called assault weapons ban is a folly. Assault weapons are not used in crimes in Maryland,” said Paul Schurick, Mr. Ehrlich’s communications director.

“The governor has made it clear to the few legislators that have raised this issue that he will not support any legislation to ban the weapons,” Mr. Schurick said.

Maryland bans the sale of some semiautomatic pistols, but the state has relied on the federal law to ban sale of long guns such as the AK47 and Uzi.

Mr. Garagiola said his bill would be aimed at weapons that are the equivalent of the M16 rifle carried by members of the military.

“I fired M16s in the Army reserves, and nobody needs them,” he said. “These weapons are designed to kill people, not a deer.”

“Nobody’s going to talk about taking away hunting rifles. We’re not trying to infringe on the Second Amendment,” Mr. Garagiola said.

The federal law was passed in 1994, and will expire Sept. 13 unless Congress votes to extend it.

President Bush has voiced support for extending the ban, but he is not expected to lobby aggressively for it, and Mr. Quinter predicted Republican congressional leaders will not allow passage of a bill to continue the ban.

Opponents of a ban on private ownership of semiautomatic weapons argue they are not the kind of guns used by criminals and the ban does not reduce crime.

“That’s just wrong,” Mr. Quinter said.

A report by the Justice Department found that the murder rate dropped nationally when the federal law went into effect and that the biggest drop came in states that did not already have a state law banning sale of assault weapons, he said.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate committee that handles gun bills, said he supports the Garagiola-Quinter bills, but doesn’t know if they can pass the legislature and become law.

“It’s an uphill climb. I’ll put it that way,” he said.

Maryland gun owners had hoped that Mr. Ehrlich, who opposed most federal gun laws, would move quickly to repeal state laws, which are among the strongest in the country. He said during the 2002 campaign that he would look at existing state gun laws to see if they have been effective in fighting crime and would try to repeal laws that don’t work.

Jim Purtillo, a gun rights activist and publisher of a pro-gun newsletter, Tripwire, said he is disappointed “that a more aggressive and objective investigation has not been done as candidate Ehrlich promised.”

He said the governor should support efforts to get rid of the ballistic fingerprinting law passed in 2000 that established a database of unique marking on cartridge cases from guns sold in Maryland.

“Why are we fully funding a social experiment like this when we should be talking about school textbooks or road construction?” Mr. Purtillo asked.

A report from state police released in September said the program has produced only four “hits” so far, in each case matching a gun to one stolen in a robbery of a gun store.

State police said the program should be continued because it would take three to six years to collect enough records to make the database an effective tool to fight crime. But it recommended that the law not be expanded, as Mrs. Forehand has suggested, to include long guns until there is more of a track record on whether the database will be a useful tool to help solve crimes.

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