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After 11-hour marathon in Senate, gun bill’s core remains intact

ANNAPOLIS — The state Senate has given preliminary approval to gun control legislation that would force future handgun owners to obtain a license and tighten restrictions on the mentally ill’s access to firearms.

Senators spent nearly 11 hours on Wednesday debating amendments to Senate Bill 281, originally introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley. Lawmakers also spent three hours Tuesday talking about the bill, which Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, called “a significant social change.”

More than 50 amendments were offered during two marathon sessions of the Senate on Wednesday, adding to 20 changes made to the original bill by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week.

The core of the bill, however — requiring handgun purchasers to submit to fingerprinting, training and licensing — was not disturbed by the flurry of amendments.

“The key parts of it are still there,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, who was the floor leader on the bill. “I expect it to be an extremely effective public safety measure.”

The most significant change to the bill was made by Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who convinced senators to remove a provision that would have prevented an individual who voluntarily checks into a mental health institution and stays there for more than 30 days from buying a gun upon his or her release.

“The 30 days has nothing to do with how dangerous they are,” Zirkin said.

To replace that provision, Zirkin’s amendment would only restrict gun access to individuals who check into a mental health institution in the face of an emergency petition by someone else, who believes that the individual is a danger to him- or herself or others.

When such individuals are discharged from the facility, they would be able to buy a gun only if their treating psychiatrists decided they were not dangerous.

The bill still would prevent anyone involuntarily committed to a mental health institution from possessing firearms.

The Senate adopted Zirkin’s amendment after a 44-2 vote, but Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, said lawmakers were overstepping.

“Most of us don’t know what we’re doing in this area,” Muse said. “But we’re affecting a lot of lives.”

Republican members of the Senate took special exception to the bill’s licensing requirement, which they said limited a Constitutional right spelled out by the Second Amendment.

But Frosh, as he did on Tuesday and last week, said it was not a big deal to ask people to undergo training and fingerprinting before being allowed to own a potentially deadly weapon.

Opponents of the bill did win some concessions, including an amendment offered by Pipkin that would reduce the potential prison sentence from three years to one year for a person who currently owns an assault weapon but fails to register it with the state after the gun control bill goes into effect.

The bill would ban the sale of assault weapons after its effective date, but those who already own such firearms could keep them if they register the weapons.

The legislation could reach final approval as early as Thursday, but Senate leaders are bracing for a potential filibuster by Republican-led opponents of the legislation.

The House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee is slated to hold a hearing on its version of the bill on Friday.