After making several changes, the panel voted 7 to 4 in favor of the bill, which would ban assault weapons, preclude more mental health patients from purchasing firearms, tighten school security and impose some of the strictest gun-licensing requirements in the country.
Both are marquee measures for O’Malley (D) in the 90-day session, which reaches its midpoint Friday. The House of Delegates is poised to weigh both bills in coming weeks.
The approval of the repeal bill followed spirited debate from members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee on both sides of the issue.
“Human beings make mistakes,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), the panel’s chairman, who argued that Maryland risked executing an innocent inmate by keeping capital punishment on the books. “No matter how hard we try . . . to find a way to beat all the error out of our system, I don’t believe that’s possible.”
Opponents of the repeal countered that lawmakers were robbing prosecutors of an important tool.
“We really are reducing our ability to deal with the most severe crimes committed in our state,” said Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll), who voted against the repeal. “In many cases, these are crimes against humanity that need a sufficient sanction.”
All six members of the panel who voted for the bill are Democrats. Two other Democrats joined three Republicans in opposing the repeal.
The Judicial Proceedings Committee has long been seen as the biggest stumbling block for repeal legislation.
Maryland, where five prisoners sit on death row, would become the 18th state to outlaw capital punishment. Death sentences would be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ultimately, the issue could be decided by voters. If a repeal passes, opponents have vowed to take advantage of a process in Maryland that allows citizens to petition just-passed laws to the ballot.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) was considered the swing vote on the Senate committee.
During the debate Thursday, Zirkin said he had managed to separate his emotional response about people who commit murders from his legal analysis of the issue.
“As heinous and awful as these individuals are, I just think the state should not be involved in these executions,” Zirkin said.
Although the death penalty remains on the books in Maryland, the state has not executed a prisoner since 2005. The state’s highest court ruled in 2006 that new regulations on lethal injection would have to be adopted for capital punishment to continue. Under O’Malley, that has not happened.
With Zirkin’s support, there are 26 senators who are either co-sponsoring the repeal bill or who have said in interviews that they plan to support it. That’s two more than are required to pass bills on the Senate floor.