Local jurisdictions would be able to impose stricter handgun control laws than state law currently allows if a bill introduced in the General Assembly gains approval.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery) and awaiting hearings in the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, would repeal a state law barring localities from enacting handgun control measures more restrictive than the state statute.
Denis' bill follows recent attempts by Friendship Heights, a special taxing district in Montgomery County, to ban handguns and then bullets within its boundaries. The local council first voted to bar possession of handguns but dropped the measure when the county attorney said the laws were in violation of the less restrictive state gun control statute. In an attempt to circumvent the state handgun restrictions, the council then passed a measure to ban bullets and was told again by the county attorney that the ordinance would violate state law.
The County Council, which must approve most Friendship Heights ordinances, had asked for the attorney's opinion. The council has made no decision yet on whether to approve the Friendship Heights bullets ban but Council President Neal Potter said he believes there are problems with the bill because of state law. He said, however, the council "won't come to a conclusion until we hear arguments from attorneys for the other side."
Recently, a number of local jurisdictions in other areas, most notably Morton Grove in Illinois, have enacted or attempted to enact handgun control measures. Denis' measure, if approved, would make Maryland the first state to allow local governments to pass gun control measures more restrictive than state laws.
In Morton Grove, a District Court judge upheld the right of the jurisdiction to ban the sale or possession of handguns, asserting that the measure did not violate Illinois law allowing individuals the right to have arms except where government bans possession of firearms when exercising its police powers. The judge ruled that Morton Grove was exercising its police powers when it banned handguns because those powers included the state's obligation to protect the general health and welfare of its people.
The Denis' proposal has drawn heated interest from both opponents and supporters of handgun controls who view Maryland as one of the few states in the nation where such a bill has a chance of approval.
Representatives from the National Rifle Association and the National Coalition to Ban Hand Guns both appeared for a Senate hearing which was postponed until next week. Denis' bill was featured in the Feb. 5 issue of New Gun Week, a weekly newsletter for gun owners, and a spokesperson from the National Coalition to Ban Hand Guns said the organization already has started a phone bank and planned a letter writing campaign to support Denis' bill.
"Maryland is one of the few states where we see that there is a serious chance that the state pre-emption (prohibition against stricter local laws) can be lifted," said coalition spokesperson Don Laackman. "The state has a major municipality (Baltimore) that is afflicted by a high incidence of hand gun violence. . . . We definitely plan to lobby intensely for this one."
A spokesman for the National Rifle Association said that if the bill was passed it could wreak havoc among the jurisdictions.
"Our first concern is that when you start getting every little town or county adopting their own restrictions which are not statewide, you run into the problem with law abiding citizens who are in compliance with laws in one county crossing into a neighboring jurisidiction and running afoul of the law," said John Adkins, an NRA spokesperson.
Further, Adkins added, "we are in general opposition to the whole concept of gun control as being a crime control measure."