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Senate begins debate on O’Malley’s gun control bill

ANNAPOLIS — In what amounted to a preview of the grand debate expected to continue in the Senate through Thursday, lawmakers argued Tuesday over mental health and licensing provisions in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun control bill for nearly three hours.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and Senate Bill 281’s shepherd in his chamber, was peppered with questions from Republicans and Democrats throughout the sometimes-heated debate. Frosh’s committee made 20 changes to O’Malley’s bill last week, and the Senate session was meant to be an opportunity for senators to ask questions about the amendments.

But debate frequently shifted toward the issue of gun control in broader strokes, with some lawmakers suggesting not enough had been done to appropriately restrict access of firearms to the mentally ill while being careful not to discourage people from seeking help for fear of not being able to one day buy a gun.

Others questioned why it was OK to make Maryland citizens submit to fingerprinting and licensing to buy firearms — a right, some said, that is spelled out by the Second Amendment.

Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, was especially concerned with the fingerprinting and licensing issue. He insisted only law-abiding citizens would be hurt by the measure and rejected Frosh’s reasoning that the fingerprinting would discourage straw purchases by friends of people who might not be able to legally buy guns on their own due to a history of violence, mental illness or even drunkenness.

But Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat mulling a run for attorney general in 2014, countered later that teachers, day care providers, horse jockeys — and even stable hands — are included among the ranks of Marylanders forced to be fingerprinted in order to do their jobs.

“If you want to clean out the stalls of the stables at the racetrack, you have to be fingerprinted,” Frosh said during debate. “You can’t hurt anybody with the waste that comes out of a horse’s stall. You can hurt somebody with a firearm.”

Sen. Edward R. Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, told Frosh he was concerned about a component of the bill that gave Maryland State Police more freedom to conduct raids of gun shops that don’t properly sell firearms. But Frosh said only 1 percent of gun stores — the bad actors — would be affected by that part of the bill.

“[Police] know who the guys are that aren’t following the law,” Frosh said.

The Senate is scheduled to reconvene at 8 a.m. Wednesday — two hours earlier than usual — and then may continue in session until 1 p.m., before breaking for committee hearings. The chamber is then expected to reconvene around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. for what may be a long night of debate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, said the Senate would pass the legislation in some fashion by the end of the week. After session, he appeared to soften what had been a firm opposition to fingerprinting, when he noted that in his county even fortunetellers must be fingerprinted.

Still, it was apparent Miller still had some problems with the legislation, identified as O’Malley’s top priority during this session of the legislature.

“All of us have our failures, including the administration,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a close vote. … This is not gun control. This is firearm safety.”

Meanwhile Pipkin, who during the debate was singled out by Miller for having the best understanding of the bill — minus Frosh — sounded as if he believed Republican senators felt they could make meaningful changes to the legislation before it left the chamber.

“The bill was flawed on the way in,” Pipkin said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Miller also maintained that the chamber would pass the administration’s death penalty repeal bill this week — a debate that promises to be spirited, but perhaps less controversial when stacked against the complicated gun legislation. Senators are expected to debate that bill for the first time Wednesday.