More than a thousand gun owners and shooting enthusiasts, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with gun slogans and American eagles, packed a high school auditorium in Rockville last night to show mass opposition to a Montgomery County Council proposal to restrict the sale of handgun ammunition.
The showing at the council's public hearing was overwhelmingly against the proposal, as gun control opponents--mobilized by the National Rifle Association--dominated the speakers' list and repeatedly interrupted two supporters of the bill with hoots and catcalls.
The opponents were aided by a surprise witness, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Harry McGuirk, who reminded the cheering crowd that he voted against Gov. Harry Hughes' tough gun penalty bill in the Maryland Senate.
"I think the issue of an individual in his own home having the means to protect himself from any intrusion on his privacy is one of the earliest laws of nature," declared McGuirk, a state senator from Baltimore, to loud applause.
The measure, sponsored by council member David Scull, would require anyone buying "fixed ammunition" in the county to produce a valid registration certificate for his handgun. Maryland law currently requires no gun registration, although gun owners can voluntarily register them with state police. Scull's bill was intended to encourage people to register their guns.
County Attorney Paul A. McGuckian told the council on Wednesday it is his opinion that Scull's bill indirectly requires registration and is therefore preempted by state law.
Scull downplayed the legal adviser's opinion yesterday, calling it "just a restatement" and "nothing new." He said the council has often ignored McGuckian's opinions in the past as when it passed a bill he had questioned banning representatives of cable television firms from donating money to county officials. "This ammunition bill is less questionable than that," Scull said.
Council President Neal Potter, speaking to reporters during a recess in the hearing, said the council will not take up the matter until after the Sept. 14 primary election. He added, "I don't think it will pass."
Scull repeatedly pressed the speakers to focus their remarks on the merits of gun registration. He asked them to respond to the results of a study by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that found gun registration helped to solve crimes in 37 percent of 19,684 cases examined.
Scull was greeted with loud laughter and some boos when he called those figures "a very strong batting average . . . on the same par with fingerprints."
Many speakers suggested that mandatory sentences for criminals, not gun registration, is the key to preventing crime.
"We'll be dammed if we let Mr. Scull and a few criminals take away that which is ours: our freedom," said Jim Blackwood, a Rockville gun dealer.
"I believe the real problem lies in the courts and the judicial system," said Robert Colvin, president of the East Silver Spring Citizens Association. "Don't bog us down with legislation that will harass law-abiding citizens."