Organizers of the effort to overturn Maryland's unique ban on cheap handguns are trying to win friends and influence voters in a group not often identified with their cause: urban blacks.
The Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban, which gets a large part of its money from the National Rifle Association, is trying to sell black voters on the notion that the new law would deprive them of their legitimate right to self-defense by removing inexpensive weapons from the market.
"To make inexpensive guns impossible to get is to say you're putting a money test on getting a gun," said conservative black leader Roy Innis, who has joined forces with the Maryland committee in its effort to overturn the law by referendum in November.
"It's racism in its worst form," said Innis, president of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Besides securing Innis to appear in a film put out by the progun forces, the committee has hired a black-run public relations firm, aired ads on black-oriented radio stations and begun canvassing black neighborhoods in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
Campaign workers also have been making $7 an hour distributing handouts in those communities decrying the legal predicament of black columnist Carl T. Rowan, who faces criminal charges in the District stemming from an incident in June in which he shot and wounded a backyard intruder.
The law, passed in the final days of the 1988 Maryland legislative session as an antidote to the widespread criminal use of so-called Saturday night specials, essentially would create a roster of handguns deemed legitimate for sporting purposes and self-protection and would outlaw all the rest.
Both sides are waiting until after Labor Day to escalate their media campaigns, but the fight for black votes already is shaping up as a nasty one. Supporters of the law accused their progun opponents last week of misrepresentation and deceit in the black community -- an allegation the gun forces vehemently deny.
George Young, a California political manager who is directing the Maryland campaign to repeal the gun control law, said the committee plans to spend about 22 percent of its budget trying to reach the black community, noting that the number is the same as the percentage of black voters in the state. Although Young declined to cite specific figures, he confirmed that the amount spent on black voters has the potential to reach $900,000.
"It's a logical extension of the campaign, as I see it," said Young, who orchestrated the successful campaign against a 1982 California initiative that would have frozen handgun sales in that state. "It isn't so much that we are targeting the black community. It's that we're campaigning in all communities."
The campaign faces an uphill battle in the black community, as it does in the state as a whole. Not the least of its challenges is the perception that the national gun lobby is controlled by conservative whites, a group whose interests have not always jibed with those of blacks in inner-city neighborhoods.
"The NRA has never had any concern about the black community," said Del. Ralph M. Hughes (D-Baltimore), principal sponsor of the legislation and chairman of Citizens for Eliminating Saturday Night Specials. "Their concern is . . . to use it so the gun manufacturers can continue to have profits, and many of us are determined to see that the black community does not get used in this fashion."
The gun law opponents also must convince black voters that the overwhelming majority of the state's black elected representatives are wrong. All but one of the 27 black members of the General Assembly voted for the gun control law, which also has the support of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, police organizations and major religious groups in the state.
The difficulty of lining up black support for the measure is reflected in the choice of Innis, a controversial figure whose political organization, CORE, was accused by the New York state attorney general's office in 1979 of widespread charity fraud and has largely been written off by mainstream black groups.
"We've always had prostitutes in our community and we always will," said George N. Buntin, executive secretary of the Baltimore NAACP, which has come out in support of the law.
But blacks involved in the campaign against the law said it's wrong to assume that their community speaks with a single voice.
"There's some sort of presumption that minority voters operate under a different set of values and principles than other citizens do," said Steve Miller, president of Vanguard Communications Plus and the minority outreach coordinator of the campaign against the law. "I'm glad the black community can have diverse viewpoints. I think that reflects the maturity of the black community and I think it reflects the success of the civil rights movement."
Vanguard is working exclusively on the gun campaign, Miller said. Nine full-time employees divide their time between a three-story row house in Baltimore and an office in Capitol Heights.
The Baltimore office on a recent day resembled the headquarters of any busy political campaign, with posters on the wall and workers hunched over telephones and computer terminals. Workers spend much of their time trying to arrange meetings with community groups, while part-time field workers and volunteers are canvassing neighborhoods to line up support, Miller said.
Miller, a District resident who graduated from George Washington University and gives his age as "in my thirties," seems well suited to his task. Witty and confident, he helped the bottling industry defeat the 1987 District bottle bill, a recycling measure that would have required residents to pay a deposit on bottles.
The message of the minority campaign is not much different from that of the Maryland committee as a whole, Miller said. "I think that what we're saying is that people ought to find out the facts for themselves before they vote," he said.
Black-oriented radio stations and newspapers will run the same ads as those that will appear statewide, Miller said.
But it's also clear that the minority campaign is not entirely colorblind. "Gun charges filed against black columnist Carl T. Rowan," proclaimed one piece of literature distributed by the campaign. "Black columnist Carl T. Rowan faces possible imprisonment and/or fines because he chose to protect his home and loved ones against intruders . . . . Is this fair? No it's not!"
Innis said he tailored his message explicitly to inner-city blacks. Appearing in "It's a Bad Law," a film produced by Young and the Maryland committee, Innis recalled the shooting deaths of two sons in separate incidents in 1968 and 1982 in New York. "If decent people in the neighborhood where my sons . . . were murdered . . . were armed, then decent people could courageously come to the defense of my sons," he said.
"Poor people cannot afford to buy expensive weapons," he said in the film. "They can afford to buy an inexpensive deterrent . . . . The so-called cheap handgun should be viewed as an affordable means of self-defense for poor people."
Such arguments do not play well among the law's black supporters, who said they went along with it precisely because of shootings such as those that cost Innis his two sons.
Hughes, in an interview last week, accused opponents of the new law of outright deception. According to Hughes, who also is president of a Baltimore community group, a Vanguard worker who called to request a meeting with that organization to discuss the gun law never identified herself as a representative of the campaign against it.
Instead, he said, she told him she represented "various community organizations," including the United Black Fund, a prominent black philanthropic group. "She never said she was connected with their group," Hughes said. "What she was trying to do was give the impression of being a black organization of Baltimore citizens."
Told the woman's name by a reporter, Miller acknowledged that she worked in the Baltimore office as a "voter contact specialist." He said he spoke to the woman about the conversation and that she said she had not misrepresented herself.
"It certainly sounds a little far-fetched to me," he said. "We don't represent the United Black Fund."