Remember the referendum in Maryland to ban Saturday night specials? The National Rifle Association spent more than $6 million to defeat it, but when votes were counted in that November of 1988 balloting, the NRA suffered a worse drubbing than Michael Dukakis, losing by a 16 percent margin.
But despite that apparent victory for gun control, the NRA isn't complaining these days about the availability of handguns in Maryland -- and with good reason. The nine-member Maryland Handgun Roster Board -- two law enforcement representatives, one representative respectively from the Maryland District Attorney's Office, the NRA, the firearms industry, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and three citizen representatives -- has approved for sale more than 1,000 handguns, while banning fewer than 20.
What has caused this undermining of the will of the majority?
First, the law that came out of the Maryland legislature and went to the voters was poorly crafted. It had no definition of Saturday night specials or any definitions for the accuracy, ease of concealment, caliber, etc., of handguns -- criteria that the board must consider when deciding whether to ban or allow the sale of a particular handgun.
Take accuracy, for example. Is a gun considered to be accurate when it is capable of putting six shots in a three-inch cluster at 25 yards, or is a gun accurate merely if it allows a shooter to hit the broad side of a barn? If the legislature assumed that the roster board would set such standards, then it assumed wrong.
Second, there is the matter of the board's competence. Anybody who has watched the board as I have would realize that confusion, not clarity, typifies its deliberations. The board often approves, without debate or testing, guns about which it has little knowledge or in some cases has never even seen. In fiscal 1990, for example, only 35 of the 200 firearms petitioned for approval were ever physically presented to the board.
A related problem is that the state police firearms examiner, who does the board's examinations, is not a trained engineer. He does not conduct a metallurgical exam or any other sophisticated tests needed to determine the overall quality of a gun. Perhaps that is why guns of such questionable quality as the Charter Arms Off Duty and the Intratec Skorpion Tec-22 have been approved.
So far in FY 90 only two firearms have been systematically and rigorously examined under controlled conditions by a qualified firearms testing laboratory. It is interesting that, after seeing the results, the board disapproved both.
Third, there is the matter of political will. Although the roster board has been floundering from the beginning, rarely has any public official, elected or appointed, questioned the large number of guns that it has approved for sale. It seems few are eager to risk the NRA's wrath again (witness the state legislature's aversion to dealing with legislation banning semiautomatic assault weapons in its last session).
Despite these developments since the referendum, all is not lost -- or need not be. The referendum demonstrated that there is a huge constituency in Maryland for gun control, and nothing has happened to change that fact. With that in mind, three things need to be done:
The state legislature should pass legislation based on the federal "sporting purposes" test or some similarly tested standard with objective, defined criteria that can stop the sale of a gun for failing to meet even one standard of safety or quality.
The roster board must improve its analytical and decision-making process. Each gun must be brought physically before the board and subject to rigorous testing. Only after a complete record is created, with adequate time and notice for public comment, should a gun be put to a vote by the board.
Politicians must provide leadership and hold the board accountable. They must face the gun violence problem in our state from a standpoint of doing what is best for public safety, not for the NRA. Mindful of the overwhelming victory at the polls for gun control, anything less is cowardice.
-- Joshua M. Horwitz is the legal counsel for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.