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April 26, 2013

How we lost the gunfight in Maryland

Guest Columnist

Karl W. Bickel

Yes, we lost the gunfight in Annapolis this spring when the state legislature passed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Forearm Safety Act of 2013, further impinging on the rights of legitimate firearms owners.


The law was an ambitious politician’s response to – and use of the emotional energy generated from – the tragedy that took place in Newtown, CT, where a deranged young man killed 26 people.


The sad irony is that none of the measures passed can or will prevent a tragedy like the Newton shooting spree, or make Marylanders safer. If that is true, then why did we lose?


One obvious and longstanding obstacle was the strong anti-gun sentiments in some of the more politically powerful corners of the state, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City to name a few.


Another factor, something relatively new, was a shift in the strategy and tactics of some of those attempting to fight off further regulation of firearms in Maryland. The abandonment of fact-based arguments in favor of emotionally charged rhetoric undoubtedly backfired inflaming and intensifying the resolve of the opposition and damaging the credibility of those attempting to protect the rights of firearms owners.


Getting national attention, as well as influencing local events, was the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre’s emotional and inflammatory rhetoric. His longstanding and stellar defense of the Second Amendment was overshadowed by his recent emotional hyperbole.


Locally, politicians like Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, threw gasoline on the already emotionally charges embers with testimony before state lawmakers like: “My worst fear is that good people may die in trying to confiscate firearms, and good people may well (die) in trying to keep them.” The implication was that the governor’s proposal includes a confiscation of firearms that would lead to deadly gun battles between citizens and law enforcement officials. It is simply not true.


The sheriff’s emotionally charged and wholly inaccurate rhetoric surely did the gun rights cause more harm than good. What he should have said was; not all law enforcement officials share the view espoused by police chiefs serving at the pleasure of their politically motivated bosses.


He should have said, in the wake of the horrible incident in Newtown, emotions are running high and those on both sides of the gun issue have resorted to emotionally charged rhetoric to advance their positions. He should have said it is time to get beyond sound bites and anecdotes intended to stir emotions and look at the facts, empirical data that sheds light on the true nature of the problem of violence in our society, and the range of realistic solutions that show promise.


It should have been said that Maryland currently has some of the most restrictive gun policies in the nation and, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports data, still tied South Carolina as the fourth deadliest state in 2011 with 6.8 murders per 100,000 population. At the same time our neighbor to the south, Virginia, enjoys much less restrictive firearms laws and ranked 29th with 3.7 murders per 100,00 residents.


The committee should have been told gun ownership has been increasing dramatically in the U.S. while the nation’s murder rate has dropped to levels not seen in nearly 50 years. Clearly more guns do not lead to more murders.


The senators should have been told of Professor James Alan Fox, of Northeastern University in Boston and one of the foremost authorities on murder in America, and his top 10 myths about mass shootings, with myth number four being “restoring the federal ban on assault weapons will prevent these horrible crimes.”


And with much of the focus on school-based incidents – like Columbine, CO, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary school – the lawmakers should have been reminded that the deadliest attack on students in the U.S. took place in Bath, Michigan, in 1927 where 38 elementary students and six adults were killed while 58 others were injured. The weapon used was a bomb, not an “assault weapon.”


State legislators should have been told that feel good measures that are responsive to emotional pleas will not address the problem. It should have been said that the public deserves better; they deserve measures grounded in evidence-based strategies, strategies that hold promise in curbing violence in our communities.


Though it would have been a close fight, the outcome may have been different.



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