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U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin. (File)

Md. campus gun ban fails after last stand at last minute

A legislative proposal to ban guns from the campuses of Maryland’s public higher education institutions, which passed the House but languished in a Senate committee for weeks because it didn’t have enough votes, was folded into a separate proposal in the final hours of this year’s General Assembly session.

That proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, regulated how people who lose the right to own a firearm after a conviction must turn in their weapons; it had passed both the House and Senate. A conference committee was needed to resolve the differences between the two versions, and added the language banning guns from campuses late Monday.

Merging the two bills with so little time left in the session didn’t sit well with Senate Republicans Michael Hough of Frederick and Steven S. Hershey Jr. of the Upper Shore, who wanted more time to examine the changes before voting.

“There’s a lot of questions on this bill,” Hershey said on the Senate floor. “They added a completely new bill to the old bill in a conference committee.”

Hough said the conference committee’s changes shocked him. “It blows my mind,” he said.

Debate on the revised proposal was interrupted several times so the Senate could move forward with other bills, and the clock ran out on the 2016 session before it came up for a vote; the House did not take up the conference committee’s proposal.

The campus-ban proposal, which was supported by legislative leadership, forbids carrying or possessing firearms or other deadly weapons on the campuses of the state’s public colleges and universities. But it includes exceptions for campus security, on- and off-duty law enforcement and some educational activities such as historical re-enactments.

The University System of Maryland supported the proposal after it was amended to make sure the presidents of its member institutions had discretion to grant exceptions.

System officials wanted to make sure police officers – many of whom are required to carry their weapons when off duty – could continue to attend classes; they also wanted to protect the hunting community at Frostburg State University, where weapons are allowed so long as they are registered and stored with university police.

Del. Ben Barnes, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, said last month that the measure added teeth to existing campus regulations by adding a criminal penalty. As proposed, his bill called for a fine of up to $1,000 and up to three years in jail for the misdemeanor offense.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said he supported the campus ban but that the original bill didn’t have the votes to move out of his committee.

When asked about merging the two bills, Raskin joked that “strange and miraculous things happen on Sine Die,” the nickname for the last day of the legislative session. “Both measures enhance gun safety in the state,” he said.

Raskin said his bill clarified existing law that forbids felons and domestic abusers from owning guns but no provision for how they should get rid of their guns once convicted; his bill requires the courts to tell offenders that they must give up their guns, then gives the offenders two days to turn their weapons in to law enforcement or to a federally-licensed gun dealer.

“Right now, the law is ambiguous,” he said.

But the conference committee also made changes to Raskin’s original proposal, which passed unanimously in the Senate; Republicans in the chamber objected to these changes, too, arguing that the qualifying crimes were no longer clearly defined and there wasn’t an adequate enforcement mechanism.