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Md. lawmakers need to stand firm on reforming gun laws

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AS THE WRENCHING memory of the elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., begins to recede, so, too, may the determination of lawmakers in Washington and state capitals to enact muscular gun-control legislation. That would be a mistake.

The firearms industry and opponents of gun control, led by the National Rifle Association, have marshaled their forces to squash, subvert and weaken bills where they can. One battleground is Maryland, where Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), along with like-minded lawmakers, is seeking to tighten qualifications for handgun purchases and ownership, as well as the regulation of gun dealers.

Mr. O’Malley has proposed a package that includes banning the sale of assault rifles; halving the legal capacity of gun magazines to 10 rounds; blocking gun sales to those with mental illness and violent tendencies; and tightening safety procedures and facilities at schools. The signature element is a measure requiring purchasers to be fingerprinted by the state police as a condition for obtaining gun licenses — on top of existing background checks and a seven-day waiting period.

The licensing regime, which would go well beyond what most states require, is designed to be a major deterrent for “straw buyers,” whom criminals often use to procure handguns. Some legislators in Annapolis — notably the Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) — balked at the licensing requirement, saying they doubted its constitutionality. But on Monday the state attorney general’s office dismissed those concerns. In an opinion, it noted that the Supreme Court has expressly allowed states to impose “conditions and qualifications” on gun sales.

Still, Mr. O’Malley’s gun-licensing initiative faces close votes in both houses of the General Assembly, where there is almost universal Republican opposition as well as qualms from some Democrats. The danger is that Democrats, shrinking from the right, will vote for a ban on sales of assault weapons and call it a day, settling for a headline, rather than systemic reform.

Banning the sale of assault weapons would be a critical step forward, particularly on the federal level. But a ban enacted in Annapolis would not confiscate the tens of thousands of such weapons already in private hands. And most gun-related crimes are committed with handguns, not assault weapons. Establishing a tough licensing regime is one way to get at that. Another way is to enact legislation, sponsored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), that would empower the state police to oversee and inspect gun dealers to ensure they are accounting for their stock of weapons.

For too long, state legislatures have been cowed by opponents of gun control, unquestioningly accepting their arguments that nothing can be done about firearms violence. The tragedy in Newtown has stiffened the spines of some lawmakers to press for tough and verifiable action in the states and in Congress. They should remain resolute.

Read more on this debate: The Post’s View: Mr. Obama’s big agenda on gun violence The Post’s View: Mr. O’Malley prepares a tough package of gun laws The Post’s View: Biden gun task force must not overreach

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