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Gun control, offshore wind energy headline O’Malley’s legislative agenda

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley said Friday that altering Maryland’s gun policies would be his top priority in a legislative agenda that also includes guaranteeing a market for developers of offshore wind energy, creating special procurement rules for public-private partnerships and repealing the death penalty.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Sen. Brian Frosh and law enforcement professionals from around the state talk to the press about the administration's legislative goals regarding gun control. (Josh Cooper/The Daily Record)

O’Malley released his full list of General Assembly priorities in an email Friday morning after appearing with law enforcement officers and supportive legislators to discuss gun control changes that include creating a licensing requirement for gun ownership, banning military-style assault weapons and putting $25 million into school safety improvements.

The governor is also proposing expanding the types of people prohibited from buying guns to include those who are under guardianship protection, because they cannot care for themselves, and those who are civilly committed if a judge decides they may be dangerous. Only the mentally ill who have a history of violent behavior are prohibited currently from owning a gun in Maryland.

“We create jobs and improve schools first by improving public safety,” O’Malley said.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown will lead the administration’s lobbying efforts on gun control. O’Malley said the legislation would also authorize two new classes of Maryland State Police officers, create of a center for mental illness early intervention and a center for school safety.

The offshore wind bill, long expected to be part of O’Malley’s agenda this year, received a boost Friday when 24 senators agreed to sign on as sponsors of the legislation, which would incentivize development of offshore wind turbines 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City while holding down rate increases for consumers.

The number of sponsors matches the number of votes needed to pass legislation in the Senate. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, already changed the membership of the Senate Finance Committee in an attempt to get the bill enough votes to spring it to the full Senate.

The House of Delegates has twice passed O’Malley’s wind proposal, only to watch it die in the Finance Committee.

“With 24 sponsors of the bill … it’s a very significant message that, instead of being stopped two years in a row, something’s going to move forward,” Miller said. “Now I’m confident that it will be amended in the committee and perhaps on the floor, and there will be very vigorous debate on the issue, because it’s a very expensive project. But it’s a very strong sign that the Senate of Maryland wants to move forward on this issue.”

The public-private partnerships bill, which would provide rules of the road for the state and public firms to enter into long-term construction and management agreements, is also a holdover from 2012. An amendment tacked on the bill by the House of Delegates’ Environmental Matters Committee gave contract winners an expedited judicial review and made the legislation retroactive, which would have allowed the state to influence the long-running State Center litigation in Baltimore City.

(A Baltimore City judge Thursday voided the contract for the proposed $1.5-billion redevelopment, finding it should have been competitively bid and the state failed to do so.)

The amendments were met with disdain in the Senate and a separate, un-amended version of the bill was instead passed by that chamber. Time ran out on the 2012 regular session before House and Senate leaders could confer to resolve those differences.

The governor’s website makes a point to note that this year’s bill is prospective.

Other O’Malley proposals for 2013 include authorizing Election Day voter registration, expanding early voting, repealing the death penalty and creating a jobs training center that will be jointly administered by the state Department of Business and Economic Development and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

‘A vote-by-vote fight’

The gun licensing requirement, however, is expected to be the most controversial of O’Malley’s proposals. There’s some disagreement among ruling Democrats about whether forcing gun owners to be licensed interferes with the Second Amendment.

Del. Bill Frick, D-Montgomery, who supports the governor’s plan, said the legislature was wading into “an emerging area of law.” The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller struck down Washington, D.C.’s ban on handguns, saying it violated the Second Amendment, but left some questions unanswered.

Frick said the court’s decision showed there is some constitutional right to gun ownership, but that it was unclear whether licensing would hinder that right.

“We don’t know, but there’s some level below which you can’t go,” Frick said.

Miller, the Senate’s president for 27 years, is among those who are cool toward the licensing requirement.

“You have to have a license to drive a car, but the Constitution doesn’t deal with driving a car,” Miller said. “I’m a lawyer, and the Second Amendment was very, very well crafted and thought about by our forefathers because of their history with England. And it’s very important for citizens to have the right to bear arms, and if you’re licensing something, you have the right to take the license away. So, I think there’s issues that have to be discussed.”

Miller said O’Malley would be wise to separate the licensing suggestion from the rest of his gun control policy.

“It’ll be a very close vote here on the floor in the Senate … I think you jeopardize other aspects of the gun control bill if they are tied together in one bill,” he said. “I think it should be a separate proposal.”

But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and cosponsor of the governor’s gun control legislation, called licensing “the most important component of the package.” He said Miller’s disagreement would be a factor in the debate but not a decisive one.

“This is going to be a vote-by-vote fight,” Frosh said.

Frosh said he wasn’t certain whether he could get Republican lawmakers to vote for the gun control legislation but Miller said he expected major opposition from senators who represent the rural parts of the state.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, immediately confirmed that expectation.

“It discriminates against the poor. They will have to register and be fingerprinted, and they will have to pay for it and leave work to do it,” Pipkin said. “It requires them to take classes – they will have to pay for them and leave work to do it. It requires them to take shooting practice – they will have to pay for it and leave work to do it.

“The governor’s proposal is not going to do anything to improve safety.”

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Upper Shore, harkened to the U.S. Constitution when articulating his opposition. He said government had no right to limit citizen access to weapons or ammunition. “Bad guys” would still be able to get guns, he said, but law-abiding citizens would see their path to ownership become more winding. The state should not dictate what citizens do and don’t need, he added.

“Since when does the government determine our needs?” Smigiel said.

While Miller was absent for the governor’s press conference describing his gun control legislation, House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he was happy to appear in support of O’Malley’s proposals.

“I believe that as we go forward, and working with the Judiciary Committee and Judicial Proceedings Committee and Health and Government Operations [Committee] and other committees, that we’ll be able to come up with a consensus on a collaborative agreement on how we can prevent that from ever happening in the state of Maryland,” Busch said. “As the father of two children, I want to make something happen.”

Legislation unveiled by O’Malley on Friday is expected to be formally introduced to the legislature Monday, after which time hearings will be scheduled.