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Gun rights activists descend upon capital

February 11, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

When gun rights activists packed a Senate committee hearing room Tuesday, some wore buttons that said "Cas Who?"

Their message to Maryland lawmakers was clear. Vote for restrictions on gun ownership and they will work to defeat you at the ballot box, just as they did former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Grassroots activists, upset at Taylor for backing a 2000 law mandating trigger locks on handguns, helped Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, narrowly take Taylor's seat two years later.

On Tuesday, they warned that the same fate could befall sponsors of a bill to ban the sale of semiautomatic rifles and shotguns in Maryland.

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Gun rights activists, who arrived at the state capital by the hundreds, greatly outnumbered the bill's supporters in a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, argued that opinion polls show most Marylanders agree with his bill, which would extend a 10-year-old federal assault weapons ban due to expire in September.

Lillian Nolan of Bethesda, president of the state Million Mom March, said it makes sense to ban the military-style weapons.

"It's a no-brainer. Do we want citizens walking down the street with Uzis?" she said.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, got Noland to admit that she would like to see a ban on all guns.

"That's the real agenda here," he said.

Opponents argued that a ban on semiautomatic rifles, which are capable of firing as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger, would not reduce crime because handguns are the weapon of choice in most firearm killings. Semiautomatic handguns already are outlawed in the state.

Opponents said the ban would infringe on their rights to legally buy semiautomatic rifles for hunting, target shooting and collecting.

Maryland State Police testified against the proposal, saying the best way to prevent gun crimes is to enforce the laws already on the books.

Several times during the hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the issue got into arguments with witnesses.

Gun dealer Sanford Abrams of Baltimore accused Sen. Ralph Hughes, D-Baltimore, of confusing automatic weapons such as machine guns with semiautomatics, which fire once each time the trigger is pulled.

Hughes angrily fired back.

"It's the guns that you sell that our killing our kids. How many little children's funerals have you been to?" he asked.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford/Cecil, disputed a Rockville, Md., minister's claim that the availability of guns has led to children's deaths.

"It's not the law-abiding citizens that are doing this. It's the criminals," Jacobs said to applause from the overflow crowd.

Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, banged his gavel and told the crowd to be quiet.

Although the legislation has the support of Frosh, it would be a close vote in the committee to bring the legislation to the full Senate.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich voted against an assault weapons ban in Congress and does not support Garagiola's bill, Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Monday. But she said he has not gone so far as to say he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle, who is running against U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., in the March 2 primary election for the 6th District congressional seat, came to the hearing to show his opposition to the bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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