Gov. Harry Hughes threatened today to veto a controversial bill that would invalidate a state court ruling that leaves manufacturers and sellers of Saturday night specials liable for injuries caused by the guns. Hughes, saying he supports another bill that would make the cheap, snub-nosed handguns illegal, said the guns "are good for somebody to buy them at a cheap price to do harm to somebody else. I don't see any other purpose and, therefore, I think they should be totally banned."
That assertion was hotly contested later in the day before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee by the bill's sponsor, Sen. Raymond Beck (R-Carroll), gun clubs and the National Rifle Association. Beck said that a ruling in October by the Maryland Court of Appeals establishing the right of victims to sue manufacturers and sellers of Saturday night specials was incorrect in its assumption that the guns are used primarily by criminals.
Criminals prefer better quality guns, Beck said, and prefer to obtain them illegally anyway. Saying that "cheap is in the eye of the beholder," Beck argued that the court ruling would hurt gun dealers and honest citizens unable to afford more expensive weapons, while doing nothing to combat crime.
Among those speaking against Beck's bill today at the hearing was Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who said the Saturday night specials are "virtually useless for sporting purposes, law enforcement or self-protection" and are sold by "merchants of death." Sachs was joined by Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran and representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland State's Attorneys Association.
In addition to the Saturday night special bills, the Senate committee is considering proposals to allow Baltimore to write its own gun legislation -- which its sponsors said was to let the city enact strict gun control legislation -- and to ensure that existing mandatory penalties for firearms offenses are more strictly enforced.
Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), the committee chairman, said after the hearing that he is "fairly certain" the committee members will vote against Beck's bill. But he also predicted that the committee would defeat a proposal by Sen. Troy Brailey (D-Baltimore) to ban the cheap handguns.
Miller said his committee has "no sympathy for Saturday night specials," but the difficulty in defining them makes them hard to ban. "Unfortunately, a number of our citizenry are getting gunned down by these so-called Saturday night specials," Miller said. "If we aren't going to prohibit them, and their sole purpose is to allow felons to prey upon human beings, then maybe what we should do is let the manufacturers of them bear the civil costs."
Charles Cunningham of the National Rifle Association told committee members that there was nothing to indicate that Saturday night specials are a criminal's gun of choice. The real object of opponents of Beck's bill, he said, was to ban all handguns, and subsequently all types of guns.
Committee member Clarence Mitchell (D-Baltimore) responded that Saturday night specials are a problem with schoolchildren in his city, not just hardened criminals. Referring to recent fatal shootings among teen-agers in Baltimore, he protested, "These are kids. They don't have high power, heavy-duty equipment . . . . They are taking [the cheap handguns] to school to use against each other."