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In Md., gun control bills face uphill fight: panel controlled by defense lawyer

By and and Ruben Castaneda,

Despite the tragedy in Tucson and a rash of deadly shootings this year in Prince George’s County, almost every gun-control bill proposed in Maryland has died — again — in a committee controlled by a Washington area defense lawyer whose firm has become highly successful at helping clients avoid lengthy prison terms for alleged gun crimes.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr.’s committee has quashed in recent weeks a bill to cut from 20 to 10 the number of rounds allowed in clips for semiautomatic weapons. It sidelined a measure to require gun dealers to track sales of firearms. And it shelved a bill, stemming from a fatal shooting last year at Johns Hopkins Hospital, to enhance penalties for carrying a gun onto a college campus or into a hospital.

For a second time in three years, Vallario (D-Prince George’s) also did not allow his committee to vote on a bill that police and prosecutors in Prince George’s and in Baltimore said was a top priority for reducing homicides: a mandatory 18-month prison term for anyone convicted of carrying a loaded gun without a permit.

In those three years, court records show, the chairman of the state’s House Judiciary Committee was the defense attorney of record at his Prince George’s County law firm for nearly 30 defendants facing gun charges. Several would have had a hard time avoiding significantly longer prison terms had the mandatory-minimum bill that died in Vallario’s committee three years ago become law.

Even those who did not benefit from the bill’s demise have fared well being represented by Vallario’s firm. Primarily through plea agreements, nearly all of them were sentenced to far shorter prison terms for gun offenses than the maximum currently allowed under state law. Several received less than court sentencing guidelines suggested. Some of Vallario’s convicted clients received no jail time at all.

In interviews, Vallario said that he sees no conflict and that he’s no different from doctors who work on health-care legislation. Vallario said that during the state’s 90-day legislative session, which ends Monday, he draws on his knowledge of the legal system but compartmentalizes his interests as a defense lawyer.

“A lot of experience in life is helpful, it makes you understand these things. But we put on a different hat when we come down here,” Vallario said in his Annapolis office.

Perceptions of conflicts can abound this time of year in Annapolis and in dozens of state capitals as professional and political interests of part-time lawmakers intersect.

In Maryland, doctors-turned-part-time-lawmakers have helped write legislation that could determine how the state monitors physicians’ issuance of prescription drugs, union leaders and retired teachers have amended pension reform for fellow public employees, and several legislators with ties to the alcohol industry are preparing to vote on whether to increase in the state’s sales tax on beer, wine and liquor.

Vallario appears to have complied with Maryland’s ethics rules, which require lawmakers to mostly self-police conflicts of interest.

Tucked in a dusty drawer in a records office across the street from the State House is a stack of disclaimers, the last of which Vallario filed 12 years ago, swearing that he can carry out his job “fairly, objectively, and in the public interest” despite an ongoing “presumed or apparent” conflict between the criminal laws he affects and the defendants he represents.

But with nearly all of the gun-control bills in Vallario’s committee dead again this year, critics charge there’s little defense left for Vallario’s posture — especially in a year in which stricter gun laws have passed in Virginia and some other right-leaning states.

Several Democratic lawmakers also blame Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the state’s legislative leaders for not harnessing public outrage over the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to make gun laws a bigger priority this year and for not putting needed pressure on Vallario and his counterpart in the state Senate to force change.

The only gun-control bill expected to pass the General Assembly this year is a measure to close a loophole that prevents courts from penalizing those who carry out crimes with rifles and shotguns as severely as those who use handguns. Another element of the bill would extend the possible maximum sentence to 15 years for a convicted felon who later commits a gun offense. A quirk in the law has resulted in the same minimum and maximum for those defendants of 5 years.

The largely technical changes encompass the bulk of O’Malley’s gun-control agenda this year.

“From the top on down, there’s not that much strong leadership. It’s like the topic has disappeared from the agenda,” said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), a sponsor of several gun-control bills that again failed in Vallario’s committee.

Although Democrats have controlled both houses of the General Assembly for decades, several in the majority represent relatively conservative areas with voters who strongly support Second Amendment rights. The state’s last major reform of gun-control policy was more than a decade ago, and a patchwork of changes made since have left a mixed bag of penalties and policies.

Vallario has represented a Prince George’s district since 1975 that has grown increasingly urban and crime-ridden. He has been a lightning rod in the General Assembly for his slow-moving approach to updating almost all forms of public-safety legislation. His perceived reluctance to tighten gun laws, specifically, has been questioned repeatedly, largely because gunmaker Beretta employs hundreds in his district and has contributed to his campaigns.

Gutierrez and several other lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who appointed Vallario, said they had seen no reason to question Vallario’s motives and trusted that he considers the state’s gun laws in good faith. But in interviews, Busch and several prominent members of Vallario’s committee said they were not aware of his firm’s regular work on gun cases.

“I’m not familiar with his law practice,” Busch said. “I didn’t even know he did gun cases.”

A Washington Post review of cases in the past three years in which Vallario’s Suitland law firm, Vallario & Collins, represented clients facing alleged gun offenses — and in which Vallario was named as the attorney of record — found that none of the defendants charged solely with first-time possession of an illegal firearm ever spent more than a few days in jail.

The lion’s share of the rest — some with as many as 20 compounding charges for drugs, violence or other offenses — were sentenced mostly through pleas to terms of one year or less.

Had this year’s mandatory minimum bill made it out of Vallario’s committee and passed the General Assembly, future defendants facing the same charges would have been subject to a minimum of 18 months behind bars. Vallario is currently listed as the attorney of record for 10 more defendants awaiting trial or sentencing for gun crimes.

Vallario said his opposition to the bill was philosophical and had nothing to do with the livelihood of his firm.

“Any mandatory, I’m opposed to mandatory,” he said. “I think that’s what we hire the judges for, that’s what we pay them the big bucks, to make decisions like that in the appropriate cases.

“It doesn’t help or hurt any lawyer if you have mandatory minimums,” Vallario added.

“You know, though, it probably would help,” he quipped. “Then you’d try to get him off the mandatory, too.”

He said he was not actively involved in the defense of many of the clients for whom he was the attorney of record. “It’s my firm — my name is on every case,” he said.

Vallario’s counterpart in the state Senate, Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), is a lawyer who specializes in commercial litigation and real estate law. Frosh also says he is philosophically opposed to mandatory minimums and did not bring to a vote the measure sought by Prince George’s and Baltimore.

“Of course prosecutors want it, it gives them a bigger gun to point” at defendants, said Frosh, who was a sponsor of both the gun-tracking legislation and the measure seeking smaller semiautomatic clips that died in Vallario’s committee.

“To put it in the most positive light, [Vallario is] interested not only in public safety but in fairness to the individuals charged – his clients,” said Daniel W. Webster, a professor and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), a supporter of the mandatory-minimum bill, said she learned from its demise and would fight for it again next year. The city’s crime statistics show 44 percent of those arrested for homicide had prior records for firearm offenses. Despite a maximum penalty of three years, those criminals spent an average of four months in prison for a first gun offense.

“You have to be prepared for whatever the makeup of the committees are,” she said. “The fact is that there are several lawmakers, for philosophy or whatever reason, who are opposed. We have to do a better job next year of explaining.”

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