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Gun rights, safety advocates battle over background check bill

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary. (File Photo)

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary. (File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Legislation to require background checks on purchasers of rifles and shotguns through private sales in Maryland drew strong opposition Wednesday from gun rights advocates who assailed the plan as invasive and an intrusion on the constitutional right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.

But gun safety advocates countered that truly law-abiding citizens should have nothing to fear from background checks designed to ensure that dangerous individuals do not gain access to the deadly weapons.

The opposing sides presented their arguments before the House Judiciary Committee as it considers again a gun control measure that died when time ran out on the 2019 General Assembly session in April. Members of the House panel and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee blamed the other side for failing to act on the legislation in the waning moments of last session.

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, the measure’s chief sponsor, called House Bill 4 necessary to “close the loophole” that permits rifles and shotguns to be sold in Maryland without a background check even though they are “every bit as deadly as handguns,” which cannot be sold without such a check.

But Dave Weber, the National Rifle Association’s Maryland director, said background checks would do little to prevent murders committed with rifles and shotguns as killers generally do not acquire deadly weapons through lawful means and procedures.

“Criminals do not follow the law,” Weber told the Judiciary Committee. “All you’re doing is infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, said the calls for background checks are inspired mainly by urban violence and show a disregard for Maryland’s long history of animal hunting far from cities, where sales of long guns between neighbors are routine.

“You are going to criminalize a lot of innocent transfers … that are part of daily life in rural America,” Pennak said, noting that the transfer of a long gun without a background check would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. “This is criminalization of innocent conduct.”

But Atterbeary, the Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, rejected Pennak’s concern about encroaching on the rights of law-abiding citizens.

“I would think that law-abiding citizens … would have no problem going through a background check,” said Atterbeary, D-Howard.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Howard County State’s Attorney Richard H. Gibson Jr. said background checks do not end gun violence but they do help to reduce it.

“There’s no panacea,” he told the committee. “It (the checks) will impact the problem and that’s a good place to start.”

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