Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun control bill faces a crucial test this week, when it is expected to receive committee votes in the House of Delegates. Although the legislation passed the Senate with strong support — and despite polling showing the vast majority of Marylanders approve of its key elements — it has produced some grumbling in the House, and not just from Republicans, who have stood unified in opposition to the measure. Lawmakers are likely to consider a host of amendments to the legislation, some of which are reasonable and some of which are not.
Perhaps the trickiest area of the legislation is the standard it sets for who, by virtue of mental illness, should be prevented from buying a gun. Existing state law prohibits purchases by those who are found not criminally responsible or incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness — those provisions are not controversial — and anyone who has spent 30 consecutive days in an inpatient mental health facility. That last standard is problematic because it catches some people who do not pose a threat to themselves or others but misses some people who do.
The Senate sought to fix that by excluding from gun ownership those who have been subject to an emergency petition for psychiatric evaluation and who are certified by two doctors or a doctor and a psychologist as posing a risk to themselves or others, which leads to their admission for up to 10 days in a hospital.
That is in some respects an improvement over Governor O'Malley's original bill, but it includes a loophole. An emergency petition, which can be instigated by a police officer, doctor or others, forces a person to go to an emergency room to be evaluated for possible certification and admission to a hospital. But some people skip the emergency petition step, come to an emergency room for evaluation voluntarily and are then certified as posing a danger. The Senate language misses them. The House is considering eliminating language about emergency petitions and instead making the standard involuntary admission to a hospital after certification. That's a reasonable change.
Some advocates for those with mental illness are pushing for much broader changes in the legislation. They point out, quite correctly, that the vast majority of those who suffer from mental illnesses do not commit gun violence, and they argue that this legislation could further stigmatize mental illness and discourage people from seeking treatment. And they complain that a teenager committed for treatment for anorexia or a combat veteran getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder could wind up stripped of his or her gun rights.
But the issue is not whether we have sympathy for those who experience mental illness but whether an individual poses a threat to himself or others, and the more closely the law can be tailored to that question, the better. True, there is little evidence that mental illness is a significant driver of the nation's homicide rate, but there is a strong connection between mental illness, gun access and suicide. Moreover, it is important to remember that this legislation includes a mechanism for those who are no longer a threat to themselves or others to get their gun rights restored.
The House is also likely to see debate over precisely which guns should be prohibited under an assault weapons ban and whether 10 is the right limit for the number of rounds in an ammunition magazine. There is probably no perfect answer to either question, but lawmakers may wish to consider public opinion on those matters. A Goucher University poll this week found that 61 percent of Marylanders support an assault weapons ban, and 59 percent support the 10-round limit.
More fundamentally, some are questioning whether this legislation is sufficiently tailored to the specific problems of gun violence faced in Maryland, and in particular Baltimore. Certainly, many elements of the bill are focused on preventing the kinds of mass shootings that, thankfully, we have not experienced in Maryland. However, the proposed licensing system for handgun purchasers, including the requirement that they submit fingerprints, is perhaps the single most effective gun control measure the state could pass in terms of preventing street violence.
It is designed to discourage straw purchases of guns, and the evidence from other states that have similar laws is that it works. The most pertinent evidence: Missouri repealed such a law in 2007, and since then, it has seen a sharp increase in the diversion of guns to criminals and a rise in the gun violence rate at a time when such crimes were on the decline nationally and in the Midwest.
The proposal is also wildly popular. The Goucher Poll found that 82 percent of Marylanders — including 68 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of Republicans — favor the fingerprinting requirement. The House should quickly follow the Senate's lead and pass this legislation.