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C. Fraser Smith: Dissecting gun control’s victory in Annapolis

Maryland, says the people’s lobbyist Vincent DeMarco, is pulling back the curtain on a life-saving secret: licensing and fingerprinting of gun buyers may reduce gun death in America.

Gun rights groups may have made the idea a non-starter elsewhere, but if more and more states adopt it, the results could be difficult to resist, he says.

One of the five licensing and fingerprinting states, Hawaii, has fewer gun deaths than any other state in the U.S., DeMarco says.

A law seems to curtail the so-called “straw purchase,” in which a friend or relative buys the weapon for a friend or relative. Licensed buyers who face criminal penalties if they do this kind of favor are far more reluctant if they know they can be found and prosecuted.

Long wait

“I’ve been waiting for 25 years for this to happen,” says DeMarco, chairman of Marylanders against Gun Violence, an organization that rallied churches and others behind the bill again this year. Asked by the governor’s office to consult on what Maryland should do in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, he put licensing and fingerprinting at the top of his list. DeMarco was a major force behind Maryland’s successful gun-control measures in the 1980s and 1990s.

If the licensing and fingerprinting bill passes, as expected, a half-dozen other measures will be enacted along with it. That accomplishment will stand in contrast to some other states where controls have been weakened. The Maryland bill is headed for expected approval in the Senate as early as Friday.

It would limit high-capacity magazines of the kind used in many mass shootings to 10 bullets. The current limit is 20.

It bans 45 assault rifles of the kind used at Sandy Hook.

It would give state police authority to deal with gun dealers who don’t abide by restrictions.

In other years, DeMarco says, passing any one of these restrictions might have taken an entire legislative session.

The first victory this year occurred in the senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee. Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County managed the bill, steering among colleagues who were not eager to restrict what opponents called their constitutional rights.

Why not require fingerprinting to vote? one Senate opponent asked. A finger on the voting machine is not the same as a finger on a trigger, Frosh said.

In the House of Delegates, the governor’s measure got stronger. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons of Montgomery County successfully offered an amendment that would deny licenses to anyone given probation before judgment. A delegate from Baltimore, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., moved successfully to ban the sale of cop-killer bullets.

Much credit for gun control success in Maryland is properly ascribed to the state’s large “D” Democratic direction in politics and lawmaking. But not every Democratic legislator has been for control.

Gun-control laws here are more stringent than in many other states; the licensing and fingerprinting requirement has been off the table for a decade because of opposition to it.

Committee change

A major difference this year, DeMarco says, is the makeup of the Judicial Proceedings Committee in the Senate. There, he says, gun-control ideas had failed in the hands of the late Sen. Walter M. Baker.

One bill that passed when Baker was in charge required a bit of legislative legerdemain by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Instead of assigning the bill to Baker’s committee, it went to a committee chaired by the late Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore because, based on its title, it dealt with State House security only. In committee, it was amended to deal with the entire state.

Republican critics of the measure say it was done for O’Malley — to “punch his ticket” for a presidential race. Certainly could be, though not every Democrat voted aye.

And, of course, there’s always some political angle to every vote. Republicans tend to represent rural areas of the state, areas where gun ownership is more prevalent and popular.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Daily Record Fridays. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.