ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 11 -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer visited a firing range for a demonstration of assault weapons today and came away shaking his head.
After watching one police officer fire more than two dozen bullets in a few seconds, another pull a weapon from beneath his suitcoat to show its concealability and a third snap a bayonet onto a gun, Schaefer said he was more convinced than ever that the military-style firearms should be banned.
"Killers, killers," Schaefer called the weapons, which he is asking the General Assembly to outlaw in Maryland.
However, gun-control opponents argue that assault weapons are a politically convenient target, but are infrequently used in crimes.
"Effectively, the difference is cosmetic. The guns that they portend to want to go after are guns that they don't like the way they look," said Richard Manning, Maryland state liaison for the National Rifle Association. He said there is little real difference between hunting rifles and the assault weapons and semiautomatic pistols that would be banned.
"How you can say this is just a hunting gun with some cosmetic things on them I don't know," Schaefer said. "I don't know if you have to go around bayonetting deer and squirrels."
Schaefer seeks to outlaw the sale and possession in Maryland of 39 assault weapons: semiautomatic rifles and shotguns built with military-style features and capable of holding high-capacity magazines. Semiautomatic means the weapon fires once and loads another bullet into the chamber with each pull of the trigger, allowing more rapid shooting. Automatic weapons, or machine guns, can fire several times with one trigger pull and already are outlawed for civilian sale.
If Schaefer's bill passes, people who own the banned weapons would be allowed to keep them, but would need to get permits.
The assault-weapon proposal, along with a bill requiring gun owners to keep their weapons away from children, marks Schaefer's second major step on gun control. During his first term, he supported the controversial ban on the inexpensive handguns known as Saturday night specials, a measure the NRA fought unsuccessfully in a $6 million referendum campaign.
In fact, the impetus to push gun control further this year grew partly from complaints that the Saturday night special law is ineffective: For example, one of the firearms proposed to be banned as an assault weapon, TEC-9, was approved for sale by the state's handgun board.
But the NRA's Manning said Schaefer is merely showing a personal prejudice against assault weapons and people who might want to collect them.
He also contends the bill would give too much power to state officials, who would be able to expand the list of outlawed guns.
Police officials counter that with an estimated 700,000 of the guns on the street in the United States, assault weapons are a problem that should be controlled.
"Every wannabe Rambo with a problem is attracted to these," said Baltimore County police Col. Leonard Supenski, who called the weapons "a magnet for society's malcontents."
The firearms on the list, some of them demonstrated for Schaefer today at the Anne Arundel County Police Academy, include the TEC-9, an assault pistol cited as the weapon of choice for drug criminals, and the Calico M900, which can be loaded with as many as 100 rounds of ammunition. One, the "Street Sweeper," can be loaded with 12 shotgun shells and is advertised by its maker as "born in Rhodesia, improved in South Africa."
More than 50 foreign-made weapons already are under a federal import ban, but domestic models are available at many gun stores.
Supenski said that although assault weapons are no more powerful than semiautomatic hunting rifles or shotguns not covered by Schaefer's legislation, the weapons have features that make them more threatening, particularly to police officers. Such guns have high-capacity magazines -- 30 rounds or more is common -- and typically are designed to allow rapid "spray firing" rather than the type of careful aiming needed for hunting or sport shooting. Some come with collapsible shoulder stocks that make them easy to conceal. Others can accommodate silencers, flash suppressors, bayonets and other features that officials at the briefing said should not be allowed for civilian sale.
Supenski said assault weapons are being found more often at crime scenes.
"These are anti-personnel weapons," Supenski said. "It's not something you'd find in a duck blind."