The House Judiciary Committee today killed a bill that would have imposed a mandatory prison sentence for illegal possession of a handgun. The proposal, earlier approved by the Senate, was the centerpiece of Gov. Harry Hughes' package of anticrime legislation.
Rejecting a series of amendments from Hughes designed to salvage some strengthening of gun control laws, the committee, which has traditionally opposed gun control efforts, voted 12 to 10 against the proposal. The vote was a rebuff both to Hughes and to the anticrime crusade that has swept this year's General Assembly session.
Opponents of the bill, and most of its supporters, said today's action means that no handgun legislation will be enacted by the legislature this year. "The bill's dead," said committee chairman Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery). "The so-called gun bills have been defeated. That ends it."
The bill was rejected, some supporters said, because the Senate had so watered down the original language that the conservative committee, which is dominated by lawyers and former prosecutors, decided the amended version wasn't worth much. The original bill included a loophole allowing judges to impose sentences less than one year, and the Senate broadened that provision by making "self-defense" a legitimate reason for carrying a gun.
Gun control supporters in both houses, who have been trying now for four years to stiffen Maryland's gun law, said they were shocked and angered by the committee's vote.
A few of the more adamant gun control advocates, convinced that popular opinion favors stiffer gun laws this year, raised the possibility of forcing the bill to the floor despite the unfavorable committee report.
"Anything can happen," said an angry Del. Paula Colodny Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the sponsor of the bill. "Somebody can get shot tonight and that could change the mood of the House."
Hollinger conceded that any move to press the issue now is an uphill battle. "You have the leadership against you. You have the committee system against you." But she added, "People delegates at least want a chance to vote on this thing."
Del. Andrew Joseph Burns (D-Baltimore), a committee member who voted for the bill, agreed with Owens that "the issue is dead. With the votes in the committee against the bill, you're certainly not going to find them on the floor."
Burns was one of several committee members who blamed Hughes for not working as hard on behalf of gun control as he did in successfully pushing for an increase in the drinking age and for a higher gasoline tax.
"If he were so much in favor of this bill he should have come down here and said so," Burns said.
Sen. J. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore), the sponsor of the Senate version of the same bill, said, "The issue will not go away. Delegates and senators are going to start hearing from a lot of constituents. Now it's incumbent upon those who are opposed to these gun control bills to show us their solution."
Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) said that gun control supporters lost out in the perfect year for tough new gun legislation because they were too willing to compromise. "You can compromise on your bill until it's nothing, and then they use that as a reason to kill it," he said.
"There was a reaction to the idea that it was a mandatory bill, a stiffer bill," said committee member Anne Scarlett Perkins (D-Baltimore). "Then once they put on that self-defense language, people felt the bill did nothing. And there is a traditional aversion in this committee to passing laws that don't do anything."
The committee's vote today was consistent with its often-expressed dislike of mandatory sentencing laws, especially for those involving handguns. When Hollinger first introduced the one-year jail term proposal three years ago, the bill got only four votes in the committee. Last year, she included a so-called "escape clause," which would permit judges to impose a lighter sentence if they explained their decision in writing. With that clause, the bill received eight votes, she said.
Hollinger thought this might be the year her idea finally would get a favorable vote in the committee. The governor, Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, the House and Senate leadership, and various community and religious groups all lined up in support. And a Baltimore Sun poll showed public support for the bill running 2 to 1 statewide. Also, Hollinger believed that with crime moving into the suburbs, some recalcitrant conservative lawmakers were shifting their antigun control stance.
But the powerful National Rifle Association launched a major lobbying blitz against the bill, including an "N.R.A. Alert" newsletter to members that Hughes lambasted in a press conference as deliberately distorted. Additional news from the Maryland legislature. Page A13.