A Maryland Senate committee killed three controversial gun bills today, including one that would have banned the sale of Saturday night specials and another that would have eliminated the right of victims to sue manufacturers and distributors of the guns.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also defeated legislation that would have allowed Baltimore, a city plagued by crimes committed with handguns, to write its own gun control laws.
Gun control advocates claimed victory on the committee's 7-to-4 vote against a bill supported by gun clubs and the National Rifle Association that would have had the effect of overturning a recent decision by the state's highest court. The Maryland Court of Appeals' ruling allowed victims of shootings with Saturday night specials to sue manufacturers and distributors for civil damages. Supporters of tougher gun control laws have argued that manufacturers of the cheap, snub-nosed handguns know their products are often used for crimes, despite contentions that they are used for sport or self-defense.
"It's a major, major victory," said Michael Hancock of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.
Gun control groups were less successful on the other two bills, which the committee defeated by votes of 6 to 5.
The full impact of last year's court decision has not been measured yet. But already gun distributors have refused to send handguns to Maryland, according to some gun shop owners.
Baltimore senators said that Saturday night specials contribute to many fatal crimes in the city and they spoke strongly in favor of the bill that would have banned sales of the guns.
"These handguns are never used for legitimate purposes," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr. (D-Baltimore City), adding that those who sell them "are literally merchants of death."
But others said that the legislation was unworkable, and that the variety of handguns on the market would make it difficult to determine precisely what weapons qualify as Saturday night specials.
"Can you imagine the problem the policeman on the street is going to have?" asked Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), who voted against the bill.
Committee Chairman Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said one reason he opposed the bill was that it would put dealers of antique weapons out of business.
Baltimore senators argued that the committee should pass the bill giving the city authority to write its own gun legislation -- a right currently held only by the state -- because crimes related to handguns are a greater problem in Baltimore than elsewhere in Maryland.
But several other committee members argued that Baltimore needs to improve its enforcement of existing gun control laws before writing tougher rules on handguns. Miller said judges on the Eastern Shore often send handgun offenders to jail, while judges in Baltimore often put them on probation. "The tools are there right now," Miller said. "The problem is that judges don't want to impose those types of sentences."