ANNAPOLIS - The Maryland Senate passed some of the toughest restrictions on gun ownership in the nation Thursday amid heavy resistance from Republicans who say the goal of the bill is to discourage residents from owning firearms.
The measure passed 28-19, largely along party lines, after nearly five hours of debate. The bill -- which bans assault weapons and assault pistols, requires a license to buy a new handgun and restricts gun ownership for the mentally ill -- is expected to pass the House. The first of two House committee hearings is scheduled for Friday.
"I don't expect any trouble with passage in the form in which it leaves the Judiciary Committee," said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery County. Democrats dominate both chambers of the General Assembly.
But it's not clear what form that legislation will take. The Senate amended the bill offered by Gov. Martin O'Malley to reduce fees and training requirements for handgun licensing and to forbid gun ownership by people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or have been sent to one by emergency order from a doctor.
|» Assault weapons: The bill bans firearms characterized as assault weapons under the federal ban that lasted from 1994 to 2004. They include 19 models of semiautomatic weapons and their copies. People who legally own an assault weapon before Oct. 1 could keep it. Those guns would have to be registered with Maryland State Police before Jan. 1.|
|» Handgun licenses: People who buy handguns would have to pay $25 for a license and submit their fingerprints to state police. Gun owners who already have handguns would not have to get a license.|
|» Magazine capacity: Magazines would be limited to 10 rounds.|
|» Mental health: The measure prohibits gun ownership by anyone who has been involuntarily committed because of mental illness or sent to a mental institution by an emergency order from a doctor.|
|» Gun shops: State police would have authority to check gun dealers' inventory to determine whether guns were sold to disqualified purchasers.|
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George's and Calvert counties, said no amendments had been filed yet but he expected many of the proposed changes raised in the Senate to also come up in the House.
A controversial provision of the bill passed by the Senate would require Marylanders to receive four hours of education and training and submit their fingerprints before obtaining a license to purchase new pistols. Those who already own a pistol would not need to be licensed unless they bought a new handgun.
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore, compared the licensing requirement to poll taxes that were once used to prevent the poor and minorities from voting. Poll taxes were later found to be unconstitutional.
Some Republicans said they could have voted for the mental health provisions, but the bill's other provisions were too overreaching.
Republicans said the bill went after law-abiding citizens instead of criminals who use guns in violent acts. Amendments to toughen penalties for criminals who use guns were defeated during debate.
Republican opponents also said the bill unfairly focuses on guns as the cause of violence instead of underlying societal factors.
"We need to get back to basics in this country," said Sen. George Edwards, R-Western Maryland. He said a lack of discipline in schools and the proliferation of violence on television and the Internet were more to blame for violence than gun ownership.