Senate panel approves death penalty repeal, altered gun bill

State Sen. Brian Frosh

After approving the repeal bill, the committee for nearly four hours debated O'Malley's gun control bill. Among other things, the legislation would ban the sale of guns classified as assault weapons, limit the size of gun magazines to 10 bullets and institute a licensing system for handgun purchases. The measure also would limit access to guns by some people with mental illnesses.

The committee rolled back governor's controversial plan to require a license to buy a handgun. The panel unanimously cut the number of training hours required from eight to four, halved the license fee from $100 to $50 and doubled the life of a handgun licenses to 10 years.

Even with the changes, gun-control advocates praised the bill "as the best way to prevent gun violence," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence.

The committee also carved out an exemption to allow the manufacture of assault weapons to be sold outside Maryland — a nod to Beretta USA, headquartered in Prince George's County. Other changes ensured hunters under 21 years old would be allowed to possess ammunition and expanded the people barred gun ownership to include those involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

Senators who supported the gun package acknowledged there was more work to be done on rules that limit access to firearms for people with mental illnesses, raising concerns that current provisions may deter people in crisis from seeking help.

Frosh, the committee's chairman, said he didn't think the gun proposal "was perfect" and that more changes could be expected on the Senate floor.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said Thursday that he thinks both death penalty repeal and stricter gun laws will muster at least the 71 votes they need to pass the House of Delegates.

"These are going to be controversial and emotional issues, but I suspect we can find the votes for both," said Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County.

Barve said he believes consensus is growing in Maryland for both measures, and lawmakers' votes will reflect that.

A poll released last month by the Annapolis-based firm OpinionWorks showed Maryland voters favor the assault weapons ban 62 percent to 35 percent, and back the gun-magazine limit 71 percent to 24 percent. The poll did not ask about handgun licensing.

On the death penalty, the same poll found that Marylanders are closely divided — with 48 percent opposing repeal and 42 percent favoring it. Other polls have found that when voters are asked whether life without parole would be an acceptable alternative, a majority say yes.

Death penalty repeal supporters have said they were determined to bring a "clean" bill to the Senate floor — that is, without any amendments creating exceptions for certain types of murders.

Brochin offered an amendment allowing capital punishment but narrowing Maryland's death penalty even further so that murderers could only be executed on the strength of DNA evidence. It was defeated 6-5. He tried again with a proposal creating an exception to repeal in the case of multiple murders in the same incident. It failed by the same margin.

Frosh stripped language from the bill devoting $500,000 in anticipated annual savings from repeal to assistance to survivors of murder victims because of concern the provision could preclude a referendum on the issue.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said he expects that if the General Assembly approves a repeal law, opponents will gather enough signatures to petition the measure to a vote in the November 2014 election. He said nothing should be included in the bill that could keep the issue from the voters.

Despite an attorney general's opinion to the contrary, there was concern that the financial-assistance language could be interpreted as making the measure an appropriations bill. Under the state Constitution, such bills cannot be petitioned to referendum.

Opponents of the gun bill offered more than a dozen amendments as the panel worked into the night, but nearly all were rejected.

"There were a lot of good modifications, but not enough," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. "People were not taking the proposals seriously."

Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Annapolis, said that while the amended version is better, "it's still a humongous blow to the Second Amendment rights of Maryland's law-abiding citizens."

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

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