To some city residents, guns can represent street crime and violence. But in rural Carroll County they can mean recreation in the great outdoors and roast goose for dinner. People there don't take kindly to anyone messing with a person's right to bear arms.
So Maryland Sen. Raymond Beck (R-Carroll) has introduced a bill to, in effect, overturn a recent court decision allowing people to sue manufacturers and dealers of cheap handguns for criminal deaths and injuries caused by Saturday night specials.
And that's why Sen. Troy Brailey (D-Baltimore) has introduced a bill to ban the sale of Saturday night specials.
The two senators are looking down opposite ends of the gun, so to speak: Brailey sees a criminal at the trigger and Beck sees game in his sights.
Believing that this city-country split is insurmountable, Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr. (D-Baltimore) introduced a bill that would give Baltimore the power to write its own gun laws. The city -- where handguns were used in 116 of the 215 homicides reported in 1984, the most recent year for which figures are available -- could then write laws suited to a world far from the duck blinds and gun clubs of rural counties.
"It may just stand a chance because you are not conflicting with the ideology of other counties," said Irby, who added that controlling handguns would not be a "panacea" for crime. "There's no doubt in my mind that the opponents are going to be down in force. But we have to make some movement. It's a terrible condition in Baltimore city. And I'd like to move Baltimore city back to 'The Monument City' and away from the Dodge City that it is now."
This is a hot year for Maryland legislators interested in guns. There are bills to ban "stun" guns, to do away with annual registration of machine guns, to tighten mandatory penalties for handgun offenses, and several hunting bills including one that would allow deer hunting with a handgun.
Ironically, one of the keenest "handgun" men in the General Assembly is Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr. of Baltimore City. Like Beck, he argues that you can't define a Saturday night special. Banning them sets a dangerous and ill-defined precedent, he said, that would affect legitimate sportsmen -- and honest people who can't afford more expensive weapons.
Unlike many gun control opponents, DiPietro does not argue that house and business owners need handguns for defense. They are too inaccurate in the hands of amateurs, he says: "Protection should be done with a shotgun." But a handgun is about the best sporting weapon there is, he believes.
That's why he has introduced the bill to allow the hunting of deer with handguns. "It's a self-interest bill," he confessed. "I'm a handgun man."
He recalled with relish how he shot a bear with a handgun during a hunting trip in Maine. "I was 12 or 15 feet away when I shot my bear," he said. ". . . It's a greater challenge. I believe that you are giving the game a lot more chance. There's more-or-less eye-to-eye contact."
But it is on Beck's legislation, for the present, that the gun control lobbyists are focused. "People who are interested in the cause," said Michael Hancock of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, "should focus most of their attention on rebuffing Sen. Beck. That has to be the No. 1 priority."
Beck's legislation was prompted by a ruling in October by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, that the Saturday night special manufacturers and dealers could be held liable for damages should their guns cause death or injury when used in crimes.
Advocates of handgun control immediately hailed the ruling as a landmark case that could eventually force manufacturers and dealers to shun inexpensive snub-nosed guns. But so far, they say, they know of no new civil suits filed in Maryland against such dealers.
Critics of the court ruling, including gun dealers, gun clubs and the National Rifle Association, complained that it was a ridiculous decision that would have no effect on criminals who, they argued, prefer good quality guns and seldom buy them through legitimate dealers.
"I was outraged by the Court of Appeals decision," said Beck, a lawyer in Carroll County. He accused the court of enacting social legislation that would never have passed the General Assembly.
The wording of Beck's bill specifically protects handgun manufacturers from liability for damages as a result of injury or death caused by Saturday night specials.
"You have to get back to the basics," he said. A handgun is "an inanimate object, until it gets in the hands of someone who wants to do violence . . . . We just have to make the laws even more stiff, to have the courts start to penalize criminals." To that end, he has introduced another bill that would abolish the state parole board.
Gun dealers have reported that a few minor gun distributors have refused to ship cheap handguns to Maryland, but said the court ruling has had little other effect on business. "Everybody in the industry is talking about it," said Bob Lesmeister of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers. But the difficulties of defining what a Saturday night special is, and the current lack of legal precedents, has left dealers puzzled about what to do.
Both supporters and opponents agree, however, that the court decision could have significant impact in the future, as civil suits are filed and as dealers try to renew their liability insurance.
That is why gun clubs are organizing to support Beck's bill, and why supporters of the court decision are planning to fight it. "We don't see it as gun control at all," said Bernard Horn, a Montgomery County lawyer who is coordinating the Maryland Young Democrats efforts to fight Beck's bill. "It's really a victim's right that Sen. Beck and his NRA colleagues are trying to take away."
"We have a lot of police officers who are hurt by Saturday night specials," said Herbert Weiner, a lobbyist for the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, which is opposing Beck's bill. "And there are a lot of citizens who are hurt through the use of Saturday night specials . . . . These weapons are inherently dangerous and intended for criminal purposes."
According to another Fraternal Order of Police attorney, 161 Maryland police officers were assaulted with handguns in 1984, about half of them in Baltimore.
Brailey, meanwhile, remains hopeful but hardly optimistic about the chances of his bill banning the sale of Saturday night specials. "It seems to me that people holler about crime," he said. "But when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of the situation, if it's going to cause somebody to lose money, they aren't that worried about getting rid of crime."
"If they kill this bill," he added, "I want them to stop talking about the killing, because they are just not sincere in what they are saying."