Md. Senate passes gun control bill

The Maryland Senate approved a sweeping gun-control bill Thursday that would give the state one of the strictest firearm laws in the country.

The contentious issue moved immediately to the House of Delegates, where the chamber's first public hearing on the bill and a rally by supporters are expected to draw thousands to Annapolis on Friday.

The Senate's 28-19 vote in support of Gov. Martin O'Malley's bill came after more than 12 hours of often-emotional debate Wednesday and Thursday. Supporters said the proposal — which would ban the sale of assault-type rifles and require a license to purchase a handgun — would save lives.

"You can get a gun quicker than you can get an apple or an orange in my community," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat. "It's an outrage, and we need to do something about it."

Opponents said virtually the entire measure treads on Second Amendment rights but objected especially to a licensing provision that would require citizens to give their fingerprints to police in order to purchase a handgun.

"This is a right. You certainly wouldn't be expected to be fingerprinted to go to church," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Supporters see the licensing provision as the centerpiece of the governor's bill and the one they believe would be most effective in reducing gun violence. Experts have told lawmakers that states with strict licensing laws have lower rates of gun deaths, in part because requiring a license makes it less likely that someone will buy a firearm on a criminal's behalf.

The bill also would limit magazines to 10 bullets, state police would be authorized to audit gun dealers and rules limiting gun ownership for people with mental illnesses would be expanded.

Maryland law now prohibits anyone who has spent 30 days in a state mental hospital from buying a gun. The legislation would bar gun purchases by patients committed involuntarily for any length of time.

Guns purchased in other states would have to be registered here, and more information would be sent to databases used for background checks. Maryland already requires universal background checks, bans assault pistols and limits gun purchases to one per month.

O'Malley expressed optimism about the measure's chances in the House.

"It is supported by overwhelming numbers of Marylanders," he said outside Senate chambers after the vote. "Hopefully, the House will recognize the very good work that's been done in the Senate."

The governor is scheduled to appear at a rally of gun-control supporters Friday morning outside the State House, while throngs of opponents are expected in Annapolis for the House hearing in the afternoon.

Authorities said they would deploy added security and might close a road near the State House. The House of Delegates leadership created an electronic sign-up process and organized live streaming of the hearing to help with crowd control. One organizer said portable toilets would be available.

Despite the potentially volatile mix of clashing viewpoints, advocates on both sides of the issue predicted peaceful disagreement.

"We're not going to bother their rally," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican and a leader of the gun-rights forces. "We respect their First Amendment rights."

Despite concessions to Republicans and some conservative Democrats, the Senate left intact the key provisions of O'Malley's bill. If the measure passes, Maryland would join five states and the District of Columbia in licensing handguns.

"We think that this law could be a national model," said Vincent DeMarco, a longtime gun-control advocate in Maryland and nationwide. "Other states should learn what we're doing here and they could save lives, too."

Debate stretched over four hours Thursday as opponents waged an ultimately unsuccessful filibuster.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the floor effort to pass what he called "a life-saving bill," said supporters did not have a vote to spare in breaking the filibuster.

Most support came from Democrats in Baltimore and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Seven conservative Democrats joined all 12 Senate Republicans in voting against the bill.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller described the debate as breaking along rural and urban lines, as those in cities seek a reprieve from gun violence and those far from them wish to keep the status quo.

"If you have a gun, you're not going to be happy with the bill," Miller said. He said stopping violence with gun-control laws is the solution of a new generation.

"Overwhelmingly, if it was [for] my generation, I would oppose this bill," said Miller, 70, a Calvert County Democrat. "If it was [for] my children's generation or my grandchildren's generation, I'd support the bill. ...

"I personally didn't like it, but I voted for it, for society and for the state of Maryland," Miller said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com