So what if a judge told them they couldn't? The folks in Takoma Park weren't about to let that stop them from being heard.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Vincent E. Ferretti Jr. ruled last week that a referendum on banning handguns could not be put on this week's official municipal ballot because it conflicted with state law. So, on Tuesday, the gun-ban supporters held their own, unofficial referendum of Takoma Park's voters. The outcome was a landslide.
By a ratio of nearly 5 to 1, voters in this free-spirited, nuclear-free enclave just north of the District cast a purely symbolic vote to ban the sale or possession of handguns within the city limits. With all the ballots counted, 409 Takoma Park voters were for the ban and 85 against.
It was enough to make Tom Mooney, a former state delegate who was the attorney for the group supporting the ban, reminisce about his student protest days of the 1960s. Back then, he said, they had a saying: "You do it at the ballot box when possible. You do it in the streets when necessary.
"Well," he added, "we took it to the streets."
In this case, the "street" was just outside City Hall, where organizers set up a table with a ballot box and a sign that said. "Vote Here on the Handgun Ban." They had just one table, even though there were three entrances that voters could use to enter the official polling place inside. They concede that some voters might have missed their table. More than 1,300 people voted in the mayoral election.
But organizers said they were concerned enough that the count be honest that they left it in the hands of Ruth Abbott, the widow of the city's legendary mayor, Sam Abbott, a liberal activist whose name graces City Hall. Ruth Abbott was selected because "her integrity is beyond reproach," said John Guernsey, who is an artist, a piano player and one of the leaders of Citizens Against Handguns.
Guernsey believes the results reflect the general sentiments of the city of 18,600 people. But even in Takoma Park, which is so progressive that it grants noncitizens the right to vote in city elections, there were die-hard supporters of the right to bear arms. There were the two residents who successfully sued to have the measure removed from the ballot, of course, and a none-too-happy woman who showed up on Election Day and offered her permit to carry a handgun as her ID.
Supporters of a ban hope Tuesday's vote will help build momentum that will carry far beyond the borders of their small city. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) already had stopped by the city to promote his campaign for greater restrictions on handguns, including an eventual ban on the weapons. And, they said, Takoma Park has taken the lead on other controversial issues, such as banning cigarette vending machines, that later were taken up elsewhere.
"If we're effective in banning handguns, it makes a statement. It makes a strong statement," said Hank Prensky, a former council member who is a real estate agent. "It begins increasing consciousness."