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.