After Newtown, O’Malley knew he wanted an assault-weapons ban, other tough measures


Vice Chair of the Judiciary Committee Kathleen Dumias (D) talks about amendments as the Maryland House of Delegates prepares to vote on Senate Bill 281 on Wednesday in Annapolis. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

On the day after a gunman killed 20 children in Newtown, Conn., Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley wrote a text messageto his chief legislative lobbyist.

“Do we or do we not have an assault-weapons ban?” the governor asked that Saturday, 10 days before Christmas.

No, Stacy Mayer wrote back.

Really? the governor responded. I thought we did.

A variety of pistols, such as mini-Uzis , were illegal. But the weapon that Adam Lanza had fired in Newtown — the semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle?

Legal in Maryland.

Three days later, O’Malley summoned Mayer and several advisers to the governor’s mansion. Until then, his team had mostly been recovering from the exhaustion of campaigning for three statewide referendums and President Obama’s reelection. They had no grand plan to take on guns as the state legislature was about to convene in Annapolis.

Now they would go after assault weapons. They would seek limits on how many bullets a gun could hold. They would regulate access to firearms for the mentally ill.

But a key piece of their agenda, as itemized in a memo that the advisers gave O’Malley, was something no state had attempted to enact in nearly two decades, and never south of the Mason-Dixon line: a new way of licensing firearms that would require fingerprinting, more-rigorous background checks and safety training.

The governor drew a star next to the licensing provision as he read the memo. He knew what he wanted.

But could he get it?

Navigating political risks

O’Malley had watched Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) face tough questioning and realized that he could easily find himself in the same predicament.

In messages to his advisers, O’Malley kept driving at the same point: Could Newtown happen in Maryland?

Taking on gun control presented political risks, not the least of which was that his opponents could portray him as an opportunist, using a national tragedy to generate headlines. A greater risk was the possibility of failure.

On Jan. 14, a month to the day after the Newtown shootings, the governor stood at a microphone at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the city where many of the more than 2,700 homicides had occurred in the state since he became governor — most of them with handguns. “There is a sickness in this country, and that sickness is gun violence,” he said.

O’Malley had been preoccupied with gun violence since his days as a Baltimore assistant state’s attorney. As the city’s mayor and as governor, he had insisted on starting each morning with a police memo listing the number of overnight homicides. Now he had national stature, a Democrat frequently mentioned as a potential contender in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

Since the carnage in Newtown, Obama had made gun control the national issue of the moment. He vowed to push reforms through Congress. “These tragedies must end,” he said. “And to end them, we must change.”

In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) widened his multimillion-dollar campaign to toughen gun laws nationwide, and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) became the first to steer stricter laws through a state legislature.

O’Malley laid out his proposal, one that would ban assault weapons and limit magazines to no more than 10 bullets. Residents buying a gun would have to give fingerprints and obtain a photo ID similar to a driver’s license. They would have to spend eight hours in a gun-safety training class.

At the same time, the governor went out of his way to mollify a constituency likely to oppose the plan: hunters. His bill would not impose restrictions on sales of rifles or shotguns. If he seemed confident about his proposal, the governor also knew that his opponents would put up a fight that would probably define the next 90 days of the legislative session.

In the House of Delegates, O’Malley knew he could count on Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). But he was less certain about many other delegates, particularly those from his own party representing pro-gun communities on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. Then there was Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the rumpled chairman of the Judiciary Committee who would need to bless O’Malley’s bill before it ever made it to the floor for a vote. A 38-year veteran of the General Assembly, Vallario saw himself as a guard against reactionary legislation. And there had been many gun-control measures in the past that his committee had quashed.

In the Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) was sympathetic to his constituents who enjoyed hunting and target practice. Guns were an important part of their lives and culture. His district was home to Beretta, the gun manufacturer he had helped lure to Prince George’s County.

For Miller, guns were personal. At his Calvert County estate, he had a large collection of historic pistols and rifles dating to the Civil War, several of which he displayed in an antique baby crib near the front door.

He was a veteran of Maryland’s legislative wars, an imposing, white-haired presence in the chamber he had ruled since 1987. Perhaps more than anyone in the assembly, Miller knew how to get what he wanted.

On the day after O’Malley’s announcement, Miller told reporters that he was unhappy with aspects of the governor’s bill. The fingerprinting requirement, Miller said, would have “a difficult time on the floor of the Senate.”

“Licensing begins to trample on Second Amendment rights,” he said.

O’Malley’s key ally in the Senate was Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), a bookish, bespectacled lawyer who represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase. Frosh had been lobbying for gun control since his first campaign in the 1980s, when he handed out “Ban Snubbies” fliers aimed at the short revolvers that were then legal. Now Frosh was chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, the Senate panel through which O’Malley’s bill had to pass.

On Feb. 6, the day Frosh scheduled his committee’s hearing, thousands of citizens descended on Annapolis, amassing into one of the largest crowds in recent memory.

“GUNS = FREEDOM” read a banner outside the State House, where protesters assembled, many of them wearing National Rifle Association hats and carrying signs such as, “Why do you want to fingerprint me? I am not a criminal.”

Frosh, however, was more focused on his committee than on the crowd. He knew he had five votes, but he needed a sixth. He courted Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), who committed his support when the governor agreed to cut the price of a license in half, to $50, a change Muse sought to help the blue-
collar families in his district.

But Miller was still unpersuaded.

On Feb. 20, Miller was called off the floor of the Senate for a visitor: Sarah Brady, the wife of former White House press secretary James Brady, who suffered a serious head wound in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan that left him partially paralyzed.

Seventeen years before, Sarah Brady reminded him, she had come to Annapolis demanding that the legislature require gun owners to give fingerprints, a measure that did not make it out of the Senate then.

“Told you I’d come back to finish,” Brady said to Miller.

A week later, as the bill was being debated on the Senate floor, Frosh stood up and addressed Miller’s main concern, the fingerprinting requirement.

“Listen to the people who have to be fingerprinted,” Frosh said, reading to the senators a page-long list that included substitute teachers, social workers, jockeys, locksmiths, fortunetellers.

From his perch, Miller was moved by what he heard.

Even soothsayers, he would say at the end of the debate. He still didn’t like fingerprinting, but it was becoming a harder point to argue.

Then he thought about his 14 grandchildren.

“Do I want to let guns proliferate in my grandchildren’s world?” he would say later. “Absolutely not. Except for legitimate hunters, I’d like it to be a gun-free environment.”

Miller had turned.

On the day after the Senate passed the governor’s bill, the focus of the gun debate turned to the House, where Speaker Busch had taken steps to minimize what opponents could do to stop the legislation.

In particular, Busch thought he had found a way to sidestep Vallario. Over Vallario’s objection, the speaker made the rare move of assigning the bill to two panels — Judiciary and the Health and Government Operations Committee.

‘Don’t take out the AR-15’

More than 1,300 people signed up to testify against the bill at a 16-hour hearing, after which Busch lauded the delegates for allowing every witness to speak.

What Busch didn’t know was that the testimony had touched members, especially the Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery). With Vallario’s displeasure well known, Busch and Mayer, O’Malley’s chief legislative lobbyist, had turned to Dumais to champion the gun bill in the House.

But she was swayed by the crowds and by the cumulative weight of 10 years of hearing gun bills in the committee. She wanted to find a compromise. Some of those weapons, she thought, maybe even the popular AR-15 used in Newtown, should be left alone.

The opponents’ message was seeping in.

Did Maryland need to ban every semiautomatic rifle? One statistic was repeated over and over: Of the state’s 398 homicides in 2011, only two involved rifles.

By mid-March, Mayer told the governor that she was worried that Vallario’s committee would gut the ban, as was happening in Congress, where gun legislation had stalled.

One night, as Judiciary Committee members wrangled over the bill, O’Malley made an unannounced visit.

The governor pointed at Vallario.

“Joe, don’t take out the AR-15,” O’Malley said, referring to the assault weapon.

A couple of nights later, at a St. Patrick’s Day party, O’Malley walked up to Vallario.

“Joe,” the governor said through a grin, “what are you doing to me?”

After more than a month with the bill, Vallario’s committee relented. There would be no compromise; there was no middle ground to be had with Republicans.

On March 29, the committees approved the governor’s bill. Most aspects of the assault-weapons ban survived.

Four days later, Republicans rose on the House floor to mount one last stand. Licensing, fingerprinting, assault weapons — they challenged it all.

“Shame on you,” Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) told the Democrats.

Busch called for the vote, and soon it was over: 78 to 61.

“Well done,” the governor told Dumais in her office, where bottles of wine were waiting. “Not an easy thing.”

After O’Malley departed, Dumais sat at her desk, exhausted. In the future, she wondered, would there be more to do?

Perhaps there were other guns that needed to be included in the assault-weapons ban and others that should have fingerprinting requirements.

“Who knows?” the delegate said. “Maybe that will be next year’s bill.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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