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Licensing requirement stands as Senate advances gun law

ANNAPOLIS — Rejecting a proposal to remove a licensing requirement, the Maryland Senate has given preliminary approval to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gun legislation by a vote of 28-19.

The Senate could vote as soon as Thursday on final passage of the 2013 Firearm Safety Act, which requires the training and licensing of handgun purchasers and the banning of semi-automatic assault weapons.

Supporters called the legislation necessary to stanch the plague of handgun violence while opponents derided it as an unconstitutional restriction on the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.

Debate on the measure is scheduled to resume at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“We have a crisis in this country,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, who is shepherding the legislation on O’Malley’s behalf.

“I don’t want to read about another Newtown, Connecticut,” Frosh added, referring to the town where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and seven adults, including himself, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

“We can save lives,” Frosh said. “It’s our job to do it.”

But Sen. Allan H. Kittleman said the bill, though well-intentioned, would violate the federal Constitution.

Constitutional rights under the Second Amendment, like free-speech rights under the First Amendment, should not be subject to licensure by the state, Kittleman said in proposing an amendment to strike the licensing requirement.

“We can’t say you’ve got to get a license or you can’t get a gun,” said Kittleman, R-Carroll and Howard. “This is a fundamental right. This is a freedom issue.”

Kittleman’s amendment was rejected by a vote of 27-20.

If passed, the Firearm Safety Act would go into effect Oct. 1. It would require that purchasers of handguns first complete a Maryland State Police-approved firearms safety training course within a year of applying for the license. Law enforcement officers and members of the U.S. military would be exempt from having to take the training course.

In addition, owners of semi-automatic assault weapons would have until Oct. 31 to register their firearms to be in lawful possession of them. The measure would also reduce from 20 to 10 rounds the detachable magazine capacity permitted to be bought and sold in Maryland.

Though O’Malley has called the bill a gun-control measure, Senate Republican Leader E. J. Pipkin said the governor’s true goal is to impose a de facto ban on guns through the imposition of licensing, which Pipkin called “a poll tax” on gun ownership.

“This is an enormous burden,” Pipkin said of the training and licensing, which would have a $25 fee under Senate Bill 281. “Gun ownership is a right.”

Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick and Carroll, said the ban on assault weapons would infringe not only on the rights of Marylanders but on law-abiding gun owners who drive through the state en route to a hunting destination elsewhere.

Frosh responded to that argument with a message for out-of-state hunters.

“If you’re coming to Maryland leave your assault weapons at home, please,” he said.

The legislation is also pending before the House Judiciary Committee, as House Bill 294.