Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran is proposing a wide-ranging package of laws that would make the state's gun control regulations among the strictest in the nation and says his ultimate goal is a ban on handguns.
Curran (D), the state's chief lawyer, wants Maryland lawmakers to tighten background checks on potential gun owners, prohibit people from carrying concealed weapons in public places and ease liability laws to make it easier to sue gunmakers. He is considering whether to sue gun manufacturers for the violence caused by their products.
"Our public policy goal must be to rid our communities of handguns," Curran says in a report he is releasing today outlining his proposals.
State leaders said they had yet to review the attorney general's proposals. But Curran's recommendations come at a time when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has put gun control on the forefront of his legislative agenda this winter with a push for "smart gun" technology that would prevent handguns from being fired by anyone but their owners.
The attorney general said he supports the governor's proposal, as well as legislation that would make illegal gun possession and sales a felony. They are misdemeanors now. He also wants to give police officers additional powers to investigate gun trafficking.
Curran said he was prompted by the gun violence that has troubled the nation over the past year. He cited shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, an Atlanta brokerage house, a Los Angeles day-care center and a Fort Worth church that left a total of 32 dead.
In an interview, Curran said he had not ruled out taking legal action against gun manufacturers. Nearly 20 cities and counties throughout the nation have sued gunmakers to recoup the cost of treating gunshot victims. None of the suits has gone to trial. A judge recently threw out a suit filed by Cincinnati, handing gunmakers a victory. But in the face of the new litigation, Colt's Manufacturing Co., the venerable Connecticut gunmaker, has said it is discontinuing many of its handguns.
Curran said he wanted to make a legislative push before suing and hoped that enactment of his legislative proposals would be the first step in what he acknowledged could be a more-than-decade-long effort to restrict handguns.
"Handguns should be the province of the military or law enforcement or a special segment of people" such as some sporting enthusiasts or shopkeepers needing protection, he said. As for his legislative proposals, he said, "For every solution to a major problem, there has to be a beginning."
Curran, a longtime gun control advocate, was reelected to a fourth term in November. He backed a push for banning Saturday night specials while serving in the legislature in 1986 and cites his own experience: His father, while serving on the Baltimore City Council in 1976, was shot at by a gunman who invaded City Hall; his father was not wounded but suffered a heart attack in the incident, Curran said.
A spokesman for Glendening said the governor would be briefed on the details of Curran's report today. The governor plans to push hard on his smart-gun proposal and welcomes "all other proposals in the debate over how we make our communities safer," said spokesman Michael Morrill.
Initial reaction to Curran's proposals from Maryland legislative leaders was mixed. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said gun control legislation would be based on "common sense" and could include new requirements for safety locks, but he did not commit to anything more stringent. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) was more receptive and said he expected delegates to pass the governor's smart-gun proposal.
"We are realizing as a society and as a nation we can't continue to not just condone but enhance and promote a life of violence. I definitely see something happening" on gun control, said Taylor, who represents a rural district in Western Maryland where such measures are not popular.
Opponents of gun control are already girding for the battle.
"Violent crime is coming down, and he picks this time to say, `Ban firearms'?" said Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association Inc. Curran, he said, "wants a police state. If you only let police officers have weapons, then citizens are their subjects, not their controllers."
Greg Costa, the Maryland liaison for the National Rifle Association, said any change in liability law would be a boon for trial lawyers but would do little to help anyone else. And he called any effort to increase purchasing requirements beyond the current seven-day waiting period "unreasonable."
"We still have a constitutional right to own firearms," he said. The NRA is willing to work with Glendening on his push for smart-gun technology, Costa said, but will oppose any effort to mandate its use, which would effectively ban the sale of any handgun lacking the technology.
Gun control was last a major issue in Maryland in 1996, when Glendening championed legislation limiting people to buying one handgun a month. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in handgun purchases in Maryland, according to the state police. Sales peaked in 1994 at 41,726 but by last year had fallen to 19,440.
Under current law, Maryland residents have to wait seven days and undergo a background check before purchasing a handgun. No license or registration is required to own a gun. Carrying a concealed handgun, however, requires a permit that entails a more stringent background check and proof of safety training.
Curran began work on his 58-page report not long after the Columbine shootings. In it, he cites studies showing that in 1994, 200 people hospitalized for fatal gunshot wounds cost the state nearly $200 million in medical and police expenses.
In addition to the financial analysis, Curran compares the recent shootings in this country with those at a school in Scotland, which prompted Britain to ban handguns, and in Australia, which led to a ban on semiautomatic weapons.
After Columbine, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Fort Worth, he writes, "now it is our turn."