Gov. Harry Hughes announced his support today for a mandatory one-year prison term for carrying a handgun without a permit, adding his voice to a political groundswell in the legislature for a major crackdown on criminals in Maryland.
Hughes endorsed a bill that has already drawn 36 cosponsors in the House and Senate and that would significantly increase the penalty for a crime now punished by 30 days imprisonment or $250 fine.
"I hope it's going to serve as some deterrent," Hughes said. "Statistics are very clear that most of the tragic homicides we have in this country are caused by handguns."
The proposed legislation, to be introduced in the 1982 General Assembly session, is a variation of the tough Massachusetts state law, which has been credited with a drop in shooting deaths there. It would leave judges some discretion to impose lesser sentences, Hughes said, but only in rare cases.
The gun control proposal is only one of hundreds of crime-related bills now flooding 1982 legislative hoppers -- bills to toughen sentencing for violent crimes, bills to aid crime victims, bills to increase drunk driving penalties, bills doubling sentences for crimes against the elderly, bills cracking down on repeat offenders and more.
"Crime is the in thing this year," said Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery County), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to which most of the bills will be referred. He cited a recent statewide poll showing that Marylanders rank crime as the state's foremost problem, far ahead of unemployment and inflation. "And don't forget, it's an election year," Owens added, in explaining the upsurge.
The state's violent crime rate rose sharply in the first six months of this year, with a 26 percent increase in slayings and 36 percent rise in robberies, according to state police figures. In addition, about 4,000 more handguns have been sold in Maryland so far this year than in all of 1980, a state police official said, adding that the last two months of the year normally bring the heaviest sales of all.
Crime has become a suburban issue as well as a problem for the cities, according to several legislators sponsoring the bills. "In my own county, in the suburbs, there have been a number of horrendous murders. People feel threatened in the very areas they moved to to feel safe in," said Del. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor of the gun control bill in the House.
As a result, she said she is hopeful that the bill, which has died in Owens' Judiciary Committee for the last two years, will pass in the 1982 session. "Last year, I had 10 cosponsors," said Hollinger, who has introduced the bill twice before. "Now I already have 23, unsolicited. In the Senate, 13 members have already agreed to cosponsor the measure.
"Needless to say, when the governor comes out and supports it, that gives us a lot of momentum," Hollinger said after Hughes' announcement.
The Hollinger bill also would increase the minimum sentence for using a handgun in the commission of a crime from five to eight years, but Hughes has not yet taken a position on that prvision of the bill.
The recent shootings of world leaders have created momentum for stricter gun control here, several officials said. "When you get the likes of the pope, President Reagan and John Lennon gunned down in a short period of time, you begin to ask how in the world can we do something about it," said Carl Eastwick, Hughes' legislative aide who is working on the gun control bill.
Hughes, who has not endorsed past gun control bills, said he decided to do so this year as part of a package of bills intended to control crime. Aides said the governor may push for tougher probation and parole guidelines to go with his stricter prisons policies imposed during the last several months. Rehabilitation programs for drunk drivers and drug users may also be proposed, the aides said.
Many of the bills introduced by legislators are intended to spur judges to impose stiffer sentences. Sen. Howard Denis (D-Montgomery) and Sen. John J. Garrity (D-Prince George's) proposed that, before sentencing convicts, judges should receive a list of all psychological, physical and financial suffering caused by the crime. Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's) has introduced a bill that would double the sentence for any crime whose victim is more than 60 years old.
"Criminals think old people are helpless, and the law ought to have no mercy in such cases," said Devlin. "Any person who commits a crime against an old person is beneath contempt and beyond sympathy."