Gov. Martin O'Malley and gun-control advocates launched an offensive Thursday to protect his proposed ban on assault-type weapons from a House committee's efforts to scale it back.
"Military-style assault weapons belong on the battlefield, NOT on the streets of our cities and towns," said an email O'Malley's political action committee sent to gun-control supporters, urging them to lobby against efforts to exempt some guns used in recent mass shootings. "We need you to ACT NOW."
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, flanked by police chiefs and state's attorneys, held a news conference Thursday morning calling for lawmakers to pass the "common-sense, balanced approach" that has already been approved by the state Senate. Aides say O'Malley will continue one-on-one meetings with lawmakers.
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Key members of the House Judiciary Committee want to exempt several types of rifles from the ban, including variants of the popular AR-15 semiautomatic used in the Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., killings. Proponents of excluding those guns include some Democrats who generally support gun control.
"The AR-15 is not as scary as we once thought," said Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and the committee's vice chair. She said Maryland gun owners have pointed out they use the firearm for target shooting and hunting. And as with other guns, she said, Maryland purchasers must first go through a criminal background check.
The pushback on the proposed Maryland ban comes as efforts in Congress to re-enact a federal ban on assault-type weapons appear to have failed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would leave the proposal out of his bill, saying there clearly are not enough votes to pass it.
With efforts in Washington faltering, Del. Shawn Tarrant, part of the House leadership in Annapolis, said Maryland's action takes on greater importance.
"We've got to accomplish this," said Tarrant, a Baltimore Democrat and deputy whip. "Sometimes the state has to lead the feds. It's the tail wagging the dog."
In Maryland, the Senate passed the governor's sweeping gun-control legislation three weeks ago, largely as he proposed it. But it has stalled without a vote in the House committee as sometimes heated, behind-the-scenes talks continue, members said. Other controversial provisions of the governor's bill, such as requiring fingerprints and a license to buy a handgun, have the votes to pass, delegates said.
The proposed state ban is modeled on the federal ban that expired in 2004. Lawmakers said they questioned whether banning the sale of the guns would substantially cut down on gun violence.
"It is totally asinine to ban something because one tragedy used this gun," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat who opposes the gun-control bill. But Kelly, who sits on the committee, said he expects some version of the ban to pass.
Committee members have been meeting in small groups for more than a week to seek consensus on which weapons could be left off a list that now includes 45 models and their copies.
They have also weighed whether to change the list of gun features that would be covered by the legislation. The bill would ban the sale of center-fire, semiautomatic rifles that have at least two features from a list that includes a pistol grip, adjustable stock, flash suppressors, threaded barrels and grenade launchers, among others.
While opponents of the measure say those features are merely cosmetic, proponents argue that the features in combination make the guns easier to conceal, reload and fire rapidly.
"These are all guns the military designed to shoot a lot of people very quickly," said Vincent DeMarco, head of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. The organization emailed supporters this week to contact their delegates and ask the House not to water down the proposed ban on assault-type weapons.
"It's not just symbolic," DeMarco said.
Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson joined Thursday's news conference to call for support for the bill, as did Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.
"We have people losing lives, we have people dying, we have children dying," Batts said. "We have a moral imperative to take a courageous stance."
Committee members said they expect to vote on the legislation next week. The 90-day General Assembly session ends April 8.