Maryland takes the lead on preventing gun violence

Despite protests that it reaches too far, firearms package deserves House vote

A reality of the far-reaching gun regulations approved by committees in the House of Delegates on Friday night: Marylanders likely will buy more assault-style weapons in the next six months than they would have without a new law. In fact, it seems like the current version of the legislation encourages sales.

Gun dealers would be allowed to sell out their present inventories of assault-style rifles even after the ban takes effect Oct. 1. If a Marylander just places an order for such a gun before then, he could still legally own it.

You might ask: If something warrants banning, why wait six months to implement it?

"We're going to flood the state with assault weapons and then declare victory," predicted Del. Luiz Simmons, a Democrat from Montgomery County, who believes, given the current pace of sales of all firearms, we could see upward of 100,000 assault-style weapons in private hands by October, up from the 60,000 currently estimated by Maryland State Police.

Certainly a rush to buy is a possibility whenever something is prohibited from commerce and we give people six months to stock up, apparently in deference to the sellers of the newly designated contraband.

That sounds disturbing, and there are other aspects of Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun reforms that, after all the tinkering in the House, seem troubling, including a narrowing of the definition of what constitutes an assault weapon.

Still, it's the overall long-term benefits of the bill that should be appreciated, even as sales continue.

Despite what many firearms enthusiasts in Maryland fear, no one is going to confiscate their legally purchased guns. If they take care of their firearms, they'll be around for a long time and can be left to the next generation. Under the present version of the bill, collectors and sportsmen can keep buying the popular AR-15-style weapons from Maryland dealers before Oct. 1.

But the bill that now goes to the full House would prohibit the sale in Maryland of the AR-15 and 44 other guns by make and model. It would also ban any weapons that have certain features spelled out in the bill, capturing, proponents say, a broad universe of military-style weapons.

That means Maryland would become a leader in at least starting to turn back the tide of high-capacity, military-style assault weapons that have been used in mass shootings.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and one of the nation's leading experts on firearms safety and regulation, has testified in Annapolis and Washington about what makes the most sense in the prevention of both street-style killings and mass shootings, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary.

In the main, Webster preaches common-sense ways to keep guns away from criminals.

On the particular matter of assault-style weapons, he has been pushing limits on ammunition magazines.

After the movie theater killings in Aurora, Colo., police said the gunman used an AR-15 with a 100-round drum magazine. (The Colorado governor recently signed into law a 15-round limit on magazines.)

Connecticut police say the gunman at Sandy Hook fired off 154 rounds in fewer than five minutes, using an AR-15 with 30-round magazines.

This is where Webster believes the proposed Maryland limit has potential to save lives.

"More important than which guns would be banned is the ban of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds," Webster says, calling the limit "the most relevant feature that increases a weapon's ability to kill or wound large numbers of people in an attack."

There are other aspects of the legislative package that could help reduce gun violence, most notably the new licensing requirements for handgun purchases.

This provision has potential to stop straw-man purchases of guns for criminals, or "girlfriend" buys.

That's my term for what Sen. Brian Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat, described in arguing for a requirement that Marylanders give state police their fingerprints to get a handgun license.

As reported in The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Frosh presented the hypothetical of a guy, itching to rob a bank, who asks his girlfriend to buy a gun. She goes along until the gun dealer tells her she must be fingerprinted.

In Frosh's telling: "She says, 'Wait a minute, I've got to give my fingerprints to the state police, I've got to apply to the state police for a license that has my picture on it? And then I'm going to go buy a gun and give it to you? I think you're a great guy, but I don't love you that much.' "

Webster, informed by years of research and analysis at Hopkins, says the overall package that goes to the House this week "should significantly reduce the diversion of guns to criminals and gun violence."

And Webster means, of course, over time — over the years ahead. There will still be plenty of guns in this state, in this country. What we need is less gun violence, and hopefully the Maryland legislature is about to take a giant step toward that goal.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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