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Virginia, Maryland take very different paths on gun control

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Local,Maryland,Virginia,Steve Contorno,Gun Control

In the four months since a gunman massacred 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school, a deep national divide over how best to control gun violence left states scrambling in opposite directions to find a solution.

No where is that division more pronounced than along the banks of the Potomac River. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley last week celebrated the legislative approval of his sweeping new restrictions on military-style guns and high-capacity magazines. Across the river in Virginia, lawmakers wrapped up their legislative session recently after killing off every gun restriction proposed.

"It is two cultures, truly," said Maryland Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery County. "Here we are right next to a right-to-carry state, in effect, and right-to-carry would never pass in Maryland. It would be resoundingly defeated. It's just a different culture, a different political culture."

Maryland's bill would:
- Prohibit ownership of 45 types of assault weapons after Oct. 1.
- Require fingerprinting, training and licensing for all new handgun purchases.
- Limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
- Prohibit gun ownership by the mentally ill.
- Prohibit gun ownership by people who plead or are found guilty of a violent crime but receive probation instead of a criminal sentence.
- Allow off-duty law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons in school zones.
- Increase penalties for people who use restricted ammunition -- including Teflon-coated, steel, explosive and depleted-uranium rounds SEmD when committing crimes.

O'Malley, a Democrat, followed the lead of President Obama -- and seven other states -- in cracking down on gun owners with tougher new laws. Under the bill now on O'Malley's desk, it would be illegal to own so-called assault weapons, new handgun buyers would have to be licensed and fingerprinted, and ammo magazines would be limited to 10 rounds.

Though O'Malley trumpeted the new gun control measures as "advancing the strategies that work to save lives," critics derided the bill as a hollow, knee-jerk gesture intended to burnish the Democratic governor's resume as he gears up for a potential presidential bid in 2016.

"It's a great bill -- for presidential aspirations or to pound your chest," said Maryland Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell created a school safety task force shortly after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy but with the clear mandate that it wasn't to consider additional restrictions on guns.

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker said the task force avoided "the urge to make sweeping changes" like other states and instead focused on "research and data-driven" solutions, like improving school safety procedures and upgrading school security.

"The best way to combat these crimes are to aggressively use your laws," Decker said.

But Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who served on the task force, said the group's work was "just on the margins." Hope said not enough was done to fund mental health care and refusing to talk about guns "is like saying you're going to stop lung cancer but you can't talk about smoking."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the drastic shift by Maryland is likely to create confusion for gun sellers in Virginia, too. Marylanders can still go to Virginia to buy military-style weapons after the new rules take effect Oct. 1, but they aren't allowed to bring the guns back across the border.

McDonnell's task force did successfully push for tougher penalties on straw purchases, or legally owned guns sold illegally to ineligible buyers, like felons. As Maryland cracks down on gun ownership, Virginia, which tried in the 1990s to shake its reputation as the gun-running capital of the East Coast, could see a spike in gun sales.

"It's a common-sense concern whenever you ban anything," Simmons said. "I do think the tsunami of gun purchases that we seem to be in the midst of suggests that a lot of people have decided to stock up now. Many of those people might have been candidates to cross state lines to buy guns."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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