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.”