2 Sides Hammer Ehrlich On Guns

By Fredrick Kunkle and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Maryland governor's race has hardly begun, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is under fire for his stance on guns -- from both sides.

In the past few weeks, Democrats and advocates of stricter gun laws have portrayed the Republican as a friend to gun owners, dating to his 1996 vote as a congressman to repeal the federal ban on assault weapons. Two years ago, they say, Ehrlich worked behind the scenes to block a similar assault weapons bill in the Maryland General Assembly.

But plenty of gun owners say that although Ehrlich's almost four years as governor have represented a welcome breather from the kind of aggressive gun control initiatives enacted by a succession of Democratic governors, they have been disappointed because he has not done more for them.

Under Ehrlich, no major changes have been made to gun laws, and the number of concealed-carry permits issued each year by the Maryland State Police has remained about the same. His one major initiative -- Project Exile, which would have emphasized enforcement of laws and harsher penalties for violators -- died in the legislature.

Ehrlich's strategy, political analysts say, has been to maneuver down the middle on an issue that provokes strong views among Maryland voters, to avoid inflaming the ardent advocates on both sides of the debate. It is an approach he has taken on a number of combustible issues, including stem cell research, abortion and rights for domestic partners.

"He's played it as best he can," said Tom Schaller, political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who is supporting Baltimore Mayor O'Malley (D) for governor. "He's ultimately trying to go to the middle on gun control and a host of other social issues, figuring that he's the only Republican game in town, so conservative voters will have no other place to go."

The governor's office calls Ehrlich's approach "prudent."

"It's a sensitive issue, and the governor believes a thoughtful approach is in Maryland's best interest," said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich's spokesman.

The path down the middle on gun issues, though, has left him politically vulnerable. Many voters in the suburbs of Washington strongly support gun control. Meanwhile, rural voters, particularly in Western Maryland, say several state laws infringe on their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Among the gun rights advocates, some say Ehrlich should have worked harder to ease restrictions. They say, for example, that the governor could make it easier to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun -- a goal of gun owners that gained attention recently when an association of gun clubs invited the state police superintendent to speak to it about the process.

Others are angry because, they say, Ehrlich did nothing to prevent the state Environment Department from helping to close a Western Maryland shooting range because of noise levels.

"There is a widespread perception that he hasn't delivered for his base," gun rights advocate James M. Purtilo said. Purtilo, of Silver Spring, is a computer science professor at the University of Maryland who publishes a gun rights blog.

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