Six years ago Lois Hess's son Stuart entered a partially constructed town house while on a construction job. There he encountered an escaped convict, armed with a handgun, who robbed him, took his car keys and shot him in the back of the head "execution style."
Since then, Hess, who lives in Baltimore County, has been part of a band of determined lobbyists who have attempted without success to convince the Maryland legislature to pass stringent new gun control laws and punishments. Today they appeared in the statehouse corridors once more, clutching a speech or a poster bearing the names of handgun victims, waiting to testify before a House committee whose members had heard it all before.
Gun control is one of the perennial issues of the legislature, and the scenario is always the same: A few bills are introduced; they are debated and then quickly go down to defeat. This year promises to be no different.
The last time anything was enacted was in 1972 when the legislature, under considerable pressure from Gov. Marvin Mandel, passed the current gun control law, which requires permits for buying or carrying handguns, fines and jail sentences for not having a required permit and mandatory five-year sentence for commission of a crime with a handgun.
Gun control advocates, such as Sen. J. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore), believe the increasing number of handgun crimes and the well-publicized shootings of John Lennon and Washington cardiologist Michael Halberstam have helped their cause. But given the aggressive lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association and state gun clubs, changes in the gun control laws are no more likely this session than in the past.
"I wouldn't say there's increasing interest [in passing new law]," said Curran, "increasing awareness [in the problem] maybe because of some recent tragedies. Every year I've put in bills to keep the issue up front. They don't pass but it makes everyone aware each year. This year, I'm hopeful of getting a bill out [of the Senate committee that he chairs] on the floor and maybe, just maybe, it'll pass [the Senate] and make it over to the House."
This year Curran has put in several bills in the Senate that set a mandatory jail sentence for carrying a handgun without a permit, increase the police involvement in the permit process and extend the permit process to include all purchases of guns, not just those from dealers. In the House, Del Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) has put in a bill to increase the mandatory jail sentence for persons convicted of handgun crimes from five to eight years.
But while Curran and Hollinger have a little hope for the bills. Lois Hess and other victims of handgun violence are more optimistic. The increasing number of handgun-related murders and incidents of crime, they say will help persuade the legislature to pass some of the bills. "I hope they will look at statistics and decide to do something," said Hess.
But while Hess and other victims of handgun violence have decended on the statehouse to push the bills as they have done in the past, the gun club members, hunters, and rife sportsmen have also returned this year, anxious to see the bills squashed once again.
They believe that gun control legislation infringes on their rights to own a gun and use it legally and they plan to use letters, telephone calls and personal appearances to make their point, just as they have done in the past.
"This wil hurt people like me who own guns for legal purposes," said Weldon Clark, head of Maryland Rife and Pistol Association, "The people who use guns to protect themselves, not only against criminals with guns but ones without them, with clubs."