Several thousand Marylanders went to Annapolis to voice their opinions on gun control Wednesday as the General Assembly began considering Gov. Martin O'Malley's sweeping proposal to impose new limits on the purchase of firearms.
At a hearing before a Senate committee, O'Malley urged state legislators to approve what he called a comprehensive approach to curbing gun violence. He called for a ban on the sale of "military-style" assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and said the state should require licensing and training for handgun buyers.
The Democrat said his proposal would not infringe on legitimate gun ownership and would protect the rights of hunters.
"This is not about ideology. This is about public safety. This is about doing reasonable things to save lives," he said.
The governor's testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee came after at least 1,500 gun-rights advocates rallied outside the State House in opposition to the legislation. They held signs that read "This is Not Nazi Germany" and "Gun Control: Want Mine? Better Brings Yours!" Among them was a contingent of 50 Allegany County residents who chartered a bus and rode for 21/2 hours to join the protest.
Meanwhile, advocates on either side of the issue packed the hearing room and an overflow room downstairs. Hundreds more stood in a line that extended down a stairway to the floor below.
Legislative aides said they had never seen such an outpouring of people seeking to testify on a bill. By an overwhelming number, they were signing up in opposition to the governor's proposal.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and the panel's chairman, said he would allot four hours of testimony to each side in a marathon hearing that continued into the evening. Even then, he said, there would not be enough time to hear from everyone who signed up to testify.
O'Malley's proposal would add 45 assault-type rifles and their copycats to a state law that already bans the sale of assault pistols. The bill would limit magazines to 10 bullets, half the current cap. People who already own a newly banned assault-type rifle as of Oct. 1 could keep it but would have to register it with the Maryland State Police and pay a $15 fee.
While supporters are hopeful about passing a ban on assault-type weapons, a more sweeping licensing requirement is proving more controversial and has not drawn support from conservative Democrats. Leading Senate Democrats have said the governor's bill might have to be broken into pieces if any provisions are to pass.
Under the plan, handgun licenses would cost $100 and be valid for five years, and a background check would still have to be conducted with each gun purchase. Applicants would have to complete an eight-hour safety training course, undergo a more extensive background check and be fingerprinted for state police records. Under current law, gun buyers must watch a 30-minute online video.
The licensing system, which would apply only to handguns, and not hunting rifles or shotguns, would cost $3.4 million to set up but would collect $7.2 million its first year, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.
Five states and the District of Columbia have such licensing programs, according to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Missouri repealed its licensing requirement in 2007, he told lawmakers, and subsequently saw its gun homicide rate go up.
Advocates for such licensing requirements say they deter "straw" purchases by people buying for others, keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. They say licensing is the most effective provision in O'Malley's gun-control package, which also would require that guns purchased outside Maryland be registered in the state within 30 days.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said the requirement that people be licensed and fingerprinted to buy a handgun would be an effective deterrent to illegal purchases.
"Getting your fingerprints [taken], I think, causes loved ones to think twice about doing something illegal," Shellenberger said.
And Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, pointed out that state law already makes it a crime to purchase guns for someone not eligible to own one and asked why that did not appear to be working.
Gregg Bernstein, the Baltimore state's attorney, said the law does not carry stiff enough penalties and is hard to enforce. He endorsed the governor's licensing proposal, saying it would discourage relatives or friends with no criminal records from buying weapons for someone else.
Some witnesses offered rambling critiques of Maryland's existing firearms laws or gun control in general, but others had specific objections to provisions of the governor's bill.