By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Despite support from Gov. Martin O'Malley, top state officials and 22 members of the state Senate, a bill that would ban assault weapons in Maryland appears headed for a turbulent battle.
"This is not about assault long guns, this is not about military weapons. This is about all guns and this is about disarming Maryland," August U. Bohmer, Jr., a former Baltimore County police officer, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a packed hearing Tuesday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael G. Lenett, D-Montgomery, and 21 other senators, would ban the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles in the state. Since the Federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, the bill has been introduced in the General Assembly each year but died in committee both times.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George's, said he expects the bill to meet a similar fate again this year. "I don't think it has the votes to get out of committee," said Miller, adding that he personally supports the assault weapons ban.
Lenett, though, said he felt that the tide has turned this year and he thinks the bill will pass.
"Some of the assault weapons ban's most stubborn opponents are gone from the General Assembly," he said in a press conference before the bill's afternoon hearing. "We have many other new legislators who could tip the scales."
Lenett says that O'Malley, who as mayor of Baltimore publicly supported the assault weapons ban last year, is again in favor of the ban. In addition, the state's two other top elected officials, Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both submitted statements supporting the ban.
Proponents of the ban cited statistics collected by CeaseFire Maryland, a group that advocates gun control, which said 789 assault rifles were traced to crimes in Maryland between 1998 and 2001. In response to the committee's repeated questions as to whether a ban would keep weapons out of the hands of criminals, supporters of the bill acknowledged that they could not predict if violence in the state would decrease but that it was a step in the right direction.
"This will make it harder for the criminals to legitimately get a weapon that will kill people indiscriminately," Paul Helmke, a Republican and president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told the committee. "Look at the balance. What is the use for the law abiding citizen [to own an assault rifle]?"
However, more than 100 gun owners appeared to testify against a bill they said would only prohibit their lawful, recreational use of the rifles and would not have an impact on violent crime.
"How can the bill be relevant in preventing crime or even curbing crime when you have more crimes committed with knives and clubs?" said Ken Brown, a Maryland 10th Cavalry Gun Club member, outside the hearing. "It's the system they need to fix."
Other opponents also cited statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice that show only a fraction of homicides in the country were committed using the types of weapons that the bill proposes to ban. Of the more than 9,000 murders in 2004 where a firearm was used, less than 1,000 involved a rifle or a shotgun, according to the FBI. Knives or blunt objects were used in more than 2,000 murders that year.
However proponents of a ban reminded the Senate committee that the statistics did not include crimes such as assault or theft where an assault weapon may have been used but did not result in death. They also emphasized that while some people intent on committing a crime cannot be stopped, a ban on weapons that were "designed to kill people" would save lives. "You have to start somewhere," said Lisa Miller Delity, president of CeaseFire Maryland. Delity's brother, FBI Special Agent Mike Miller, was killed in 1994 by fire from an assault rifle. "If we can keep them off the streets we can protect so many people."