Poll: Most Marylanders back O’Malley on gun laws but not on repeal of the death penalty

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press - Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a rally in support of repealing the state's death penalty in Annapolis on Jan. 15.

Marylanders overwhelmingly support Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to force gun buyers to submit to some of the nation’s strictest licensing requirements, including fingerprinting and safety training, according to a new Washington Post poll.

But a majority oppose O’Malley’s bid to abolish the death penalty, despite deep skepticism across the state about whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent, the poll found.

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Marylanders’ views on guns
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Marylanders’ views on guns

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The mixed verdict on two of the governor’s leading priorities comes at a key juncture in the 90-day legislative session for O’Malley (D), who is trying to cement his progressive legacy in Maryland as he eyes a possible run for national office in 2016.

Across the state, fully 85 percent back the governor’s licensing plan — the centerpiece of a broader gun-control bill — and 73 percent do so “strongly,” according to the poll.

On Tuesday, the state Senate opened what promises to be several days of contentious debate on the legislation, which would also ban high-capacity ammunition clips and assault weapons — provisions that also enjoy broad support in the Post poll.

Republicans blasted O’Malley’s licensing plan, saying it would run roughshod over the Second Amendment and make it costly to express a constitutional right.

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) questioned how O’Malley could mandate fingerprinting to buy a gun when he opposes requiring voters to bring photo identification to the polls.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) snapped back at Kittleman that when a voter pulls the lever in a ballot booth, “nobody on the other end of the machine is going to fall over dead.”

Action on several other O’Malley agenda items, including his proposed repeal of the state’s death penalty, is expected in coming weeks.

Sixty percent of adults in the poll say Maryland law should allow for the death penalty; 36 percent support replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, as O’Malley advocates.

In the poll, 58 percent say they support another O’Malley agenda item: legislation to advance renewable energy in the state by providing incentives to build an offshore wind farm.

But the survey also underscores the challenges the governor will face if he chooses to champion a transportation funding bill in the closing weeks of the session, as he has suggested he would like to.

While many in the Washington region say traffic congestion is a major problem, barely a quarter of Marylanders statewide support any plan to do something about it that involves raising taxes

Ten weeks after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Marylanders are more supportive of stricter gun-control measures than Americans overall. They also tilt in favor of measures beyond what O’Malley and the legislature have seemed willing to do, such as putting an armed guard in every school in the state, a proposal backed nationally by the National Rifle Association.

Concerns about gun violence and crime dwarf economic concerns in Prince George’s County, where six teenage students and a college senior have died this school year in shootings, as well as in Baltimore, which has recorded 23 shooting homicides since January. Residents in both districts overwhelmingly back stricter gun laws, as do those in Montgomery County, even as gun violence is less widely perceived to be a problem there.

Overall, more than six in 10 favor stricter gun-control laws in Maryland, outpacing the 54 percent of all Americans who support stricter laws in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

O’Malley’s licensing plan draws wide support from across the state’s political spectrum, with backing from more than nine in 10 Democrats and more than seven in 10 Republicans and independents. Most of those in gun-owning households also approve of the plan, with 59 percent saying they do so “strongly.”

Proponents of the licensing provision say requiring purchasers to submit fingerprints to police would reduce so-called straw purchases, when a family member, friend or acquaintance buys a gun on behalf of another person who might not qualify.

“I support it, absolutely,” said John Pendelton, 58, of Temple Hills. “Those secondhand gun buys, they’re a problem, and if someone gets caught, they should be punished just as equally as someone who uses the gun.”

The vast majority in the state’s gun-owning households support background checks at gun shows, something that is already required in Maryland but not across the Potomac River in Virginia. A clear majority also supports placing armed guards in schools.

But Maryland residents in gun-owning households split more closely on banning assault weapons, with 53 percent in support to 45 percent in opposition. Over half of gun owners, 54 percent, oppose banning high-capacity clips.

Overall, 64 percent of Marylanders in gun-owning households oppose stricter Maryland gun control. Republicans also oppose it by 64 percent to 34 percent.

Maryland, however, is not much of a gun state, according to the poll. Just 29 percent of Marylanders live in gun-owning households, compared with 44 percent nationally in a recent Post-ABC poll.

Although a majority of Marylanders continue to support the death penalty, some of the arguments O’Malley is making appear to resonate.

By nearly 2 to 1, those polled say that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and does not lower the murder rate. And most who responded that way say they feel strongly about their view.

Moreover, nearly one-third of Marylanders — including nearly half of African Americans — say capital punishment has been applied unfairly in the state. That’s another argument O’Malley has advanced in a state where five men sit on death row but no executions have taken place since 2005.

Yet even when those arguments are stated explicitly — as well as questions that critics have raised about the morality of capital punishment — support for repeal is tepid among the public.

Some supporters of the death penalty say they are not about to budge on their views.

“I believe in an eye for an eye,” said Denise Johnson, 30, an X-ray technician who lives in Baltimore. “If I go out and kill someone, what right do I have to walk around?”

Johnson said she is convinced that the death penalty can be a deterrent to killing in some cases.

“Maybe it makes some people think twice,” she said. “Jail’s not even that bad anymore, from what I hear.”

Marylanders such as Johnson who believe the death penalty is a deterrent say by an 84 to 13 percent margin that the punishment should be kept on the books as an option.

Others are more conflicted and open to arguments that capital punishment should be abolished.

Justin Kander, a student majoring in marketing at the University of Maryland at College Park, acknowledged that he is “a little bit on the fence” when it comes to the death penalty.

Kander said he is okay with capital punishment for people convicted of “extremely heinous crimes” yet he worries about the state executing an innocent person.

Kander said he considers life without the possibility of parole to be “a pretty acceptable replacement.”

“It’s still an extremely bad punishment, and in some cases, it’s worse than death,” he said.

There are deep divisions over the death penalty based on party affiliation, race, sex and other demographics.

More than half of Democrats oppose capital punishment, while three-quarters of Republicans support it.

About six in 10 men support the death penalty, while women are nearly evenly divided.

Whites support capital punishment by a margin of about 2 to 1, while a majority of African Americans are opposed. And blacks and whites differ significantly on whether it is imposed fairly.

The Post poll was conducted Feb. 21-24 among a random sample of 1,156 adult residents of Maryland. The results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

craighillp@washpost.com

John Wagner and Kate Havard contributed to this report.

Capital Insight Director Jon Cohen and pollster Scott Clement also contributed to this report. Capital Insight is the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

 
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