Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., scrambling to salvage some of his legislative agenda, tried yesterday to forge a compromise on his signature crime-fighting initiative to toughen punishment for felons caught with guns.
But Ehrlich's efforts to attach a gun-control measure to his Project Exile bill met with resistance from advocates on both sides of the gun debate.
Ehrlich (R) met at the governor's mansion yesterday with National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre and a few gun-rights lawmakers to try to save his legislation, which would raise the maximum sentence for gun-toting felons from five years to 10.
The tougher sentences are key to the Project Exile approach, which also involves working with federal prosecutors to exile gun offenders to federal prisons in other states. The governor has secured an agreement from the U.S. attorney to handle more gun crimes. But to pass new state sentencing legislation, he needs support from gun-control advocates in the General Assembly. In particular, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), is holding up Ehrlich's bill until the governor agrees to tougher gun-control measures.
Ehrlich said he plans to meet with Frosh in addition to the NRA. "There's concern on all sides of this issue," Ehrlich said.
A loss on the gun crimes bill would represent another setback for a young administration struggling to chalk up a single legislative victory in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. At the same time, the stalemate presages the difficulty gun-control advocates face with a Republican occupying Government House for the first time in more than three decades.
Despite concerns caused by last fall's sniper shootings, proponents acknowledge that measures to enact new gun restrictions also are probably dead for the session.
"It will be very difficult to get anything passed," Frosh said.
To assuage gun owners who felt that Project Exile would go too far, Ehrlich has offered to water down the proposal so that the new sentencing laws would apply only to serious violent offenders, said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), a staunch ally of the gun-rights lobby.
To placate Frosh, Ehrlich is offering to tie the bill's passage to a measure that would impose penalties on gun owners who fail to report a lost or stolen gun to authorities. Police say gun traffickers often claim loss or theft when a weapon used in a crime is traced to them.
Ehrlich said he believes there "should be repercussions" for such failing to report a loss or theft and is willing to consider civil fines. But that compromise, said Jimeno and Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican who also attended yesterday's meeting, will not be acceptable to many gun-rights supporters.
"Law-abiding gun owners want to report," Jimeno said. "But if you don't know that your gun is stolen, you could be the victim twice once for having it stolen and once for failing to report it."
The compromise is also unacceptable to gun-control advocates, who say that a $100 civil fine is hardly a deterrent to gun traffickers. .
Frosh said he is unwilling to accept anything less than criminal penalties. His bill would impose up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"Civil's a no go," Eric Gally, a lobbyist for gun-control groups, said in reference to the fine as he waited outside the governor's mansion for Ehrlich's meeting with NRA representatives to end. "Wayne LaPierre may run the White House, but he's not going to run this State House."
Several Republican lawmakers said it is far better to have a Republican governor trying and failing to push "sensible" gun bills than to have a liberal Democrat such as former governor Parris N. Glendening, who succeeded in pushing strict new controls on gun owners and manufacturers through a closely divided General Assembly.
"I think we're way better off," Sen. Alexander X. Mooney (R-Frederick) said.
Some Republicans said they hope that the failure of bills such as Project Exile will highlight the recalcitrance of the Democrats who control the General Assembly.
"The governor has bent over backwards," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "Hopefully, the citizens of this state will see the Democrats for the obstructionists they are."
Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said that the federal-state cooperation Ehrlich has secured is the guts of Project Exile and that the governor should simply declare victory. Otherwise, he and Haines warned, Ehrlich may suffer another defeat.
"I'd say he has maybe a 10 percent chance of getting it passed," Haines said.