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October 8, 2003

Guns And Gun Violence

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Two of my colleagues from the General Assembly, Sen. Rob Garagiola (D., Montgomery) and Del. Neil Quinter (D., Howard), have resurrected the bill to ban assault-style weapons in Maryland.

They suggest that Maryland cannot depend on the Republican-controlled U. S. Congress to extend the current assault weapons ban. They also suggest that the federal ban does not include all of the weapons it should, most notably the Bushmaster.

It's all in the name. The Bushmaster is the commercial name for a semi-automatic rifle that resembles a military rifle. The Bushmaster would probably have escaped our attention had it not been for John Mohamed and Lee Malvo.

Last year, these two perpetrated a series of horrific crimes, randomly killing innocent victims with a Bushmaster rifle. They could just as easily (maybe even more easily) committed these crimes with any other commercially available semi-automatic or single shot long gun.

As long as sick, twisted criminals have used guns in the commission of crimes, we've had legislators argue for the banning or restriction of firearms. The logic is that if we ban the guns, we'll save lives.

As is the case in almost every political argument, both sides of the question can point to studies and analyses that support their particular argument. Clearly, if we were actually able to prevent guns from getting into the hands of violent and dangerous people, fewer people would be hurt or killed by gunfire.

Unfortunately, that presumes that criminals will respect laws governing acquisition and ownership of banned or regulated weapons. In case after case, in jurisdictions with some of the most prohibitive firearms regulations, we see that there is no rational connection between restrictions in ownership and reductions in gun violence.

I hear opponents of regulation cite the constitutional protection of firearms ownership as the basis for rejecting firearms regulations. I personally don't subscribe to that theory. When the framers drafted that language, they were contemplating the possession of black powder guns, and they were concerned about an overly powerful central government ignoring the will of the people, necessitating armed resistance.

I wonder if they would have included protections for the possession of fully automatic weapons, or bullets designed to pierce the vests worn by law enforcement officers. I'm no conspiracy theorist, so you can't sell me on the idea that I need that kind of protection from our local police.

I'm looking for the logical, rational public policy debate on this question. Don't trot out the line of victims as an excuse to implement poorly conceived public policy.

I can tell that Sarah Brady is a good woman, and I was deeply saddened by the shooting and crippling of her husband Jim, President Reagan's press secretary. Unfortunately, I don't think she is an effective spokesperson. Her politicization of the issue of gun control has severely limited her credibility as a voice for change. Liberals who attack sportsmen because they either don't understand the sport or don't want to see animal populations managed this way demonstrate a dangerous ignorance of how others choose to live.

Likewise, don't shout about what Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin meant by the Second Amendment. We weren't there, and they aren't here. I fail to see how owning a street sweeper, a shotgun with a large cartridge capable of a high rate of fire, is necessary for personal protection. You won't be deer hunting with a compact machine gun, because the venison would be so full of lead that you couldn't chew a mouthful without losing some teeth.

Instead, why can't we engage in a meaningful, substantive debate on how we protect our safety while ensuring the rights of law abiding gun owners? Technology and information can be an asset in this discussion.

We can look at the entire range of thought, from states with concealed carry laws to the most restrictive firearms regulations. We can analyze statistics on how effective the current crop of laws has been in combating violence.

We can debate why our enforcement of existing law is so random and lackadaisical. We can determine the usefulness of certain weapons that have as their principle use the killing of as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.

Urban legislators see this problem very differently than the rural legislators do. Unfortunately, urban legislators represent the bulk of Maryland's population, so they control large blocks of votes in the Maryland House and Senate.

Often, our urban colleagues view rural legislators with disdain. I recall a floor debate on the question of requiring a driver to move out of the left lane when begin overtaken by another driver. An urban legislator referred to Del. Kevin Kelly (D., Alleghany) as sponsoring the "pickup truck driving, gun toting, tobacco-chewing Bubba" bill.

That's how many of them see us. If we argue in favor of the rights of legitimate, law-abiding sportsmen, these urban legislators feel it necessary to defame and dismiss instead of engaging in meaningful public policy discussions.

Unfortunately, to do what I suggest will require national, state, and local leaders to place the larger interests above petty partisanship. Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley held joint press conferences with Sen. Garagiola and Del. Quinter to push for stricter gun laws.

In both cases, shots (excuse the pun) were taken at President Bush and Governor Erhlich. Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Duncan are less concerned about a meaningful firearms debate than they are posturing for the 2006 gubernatorial election.

If Mr. Quinter and Mr. Garagiola are serious in their pursuit, they will encourage a broad debate during the next session on the issues I've raised. They'll be open to considering how to accommodate the interests of legitimate points of view that might not follow their own. If not, then they will join the ranks of past legislative activists who ignore the complexity of this question. We'll be no closer to truly dealing with this difficult question than we were before they started.

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