The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Virginia grapples with big gun laws, Maryland tries to tighten loopholes

Bills that face favorable prospects in the Maryland legislature include a ban on untraceable “ghost guns” made with 3-D printers, an expansion of the ban on the sale of military-style assault rifles and a requirement for all private sales to be subject to background checks. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

As a contentious gun rights rally takes place in Richmond this week, Virginia’s neighbor to the north is debating whether to further tighten gun laws that are already some of the strictest in the nation.

The measures proposed in Virginia that have inspired gun rights activists to descend on its capitol Monday — including background checks on most purchases and a one-gun-per-month limit — have been on the books in Maryland for years, in some cases for a generation.

But with new leadership in Annapolis reflecting the legislature’s leftward shift, Maryland’s gun-control activists and some Democratic lawmakers see an era of even stricter regulation ahead.

Bills that face favorable prospects include a ban on untraceable “ghost guns” made with 3-D printers, an expansion of the state’s 2013 ban on the sale of military-style assault rifles to include firearm features popularized since then and a requirement for all private sales of rifles and shotguns to be subject to background checks.

Lawmakers have also pitched making state regulators study whether and how the state could mandate an electronic sensor on every newly purchased gun that, theoretically, could trace a firearm’s location if it was lost or stolen.

“You can expect some different policies,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), the new chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which controls what gun-control bills are considered by the Senate.

Smith is co-sponsoring some gun-control legislation that in the past stalled or was watered down in the committee he now oversees.

The leadership shifts and years of screw-tightening on already tough laws have some Maryland gun rights activists feeling somewhat defeated — especially because procedural changes have diluted their ability to show up in force to oppose all the bills at once.

In the past, all gun legislation was heard on a single day when the session was well underway, enabling activists to plan protests and summon big crowds. In 2013, gun rights activists said as many as 4,000 people rallied against an assault-rifle ban, which passed anyway.

This year, the proposed gun-control bills have been scheduled for hearings on different days. And the most high-profile bill, requiring background checks for all rifle and shotgun sales, was scheduled for early in the session, leaving advocates with less time to organize.

“They’re making it much more difficult for people to come down and testify,” said Mark W. Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, one of the state’s most prominent gun rights groups. “People have lives. They have jobs. They have to be able to plan.”

Last week, the new Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate passed bills to limit handgun purchases to one per month, allow local governments to bar weapons from certain public places and require background checks on all firearms sales. The bills await action in the House, which is also controlled by Democrats for the first time in a generation. Passing those bills is a top priority for Democrats in both chambers and for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

Monday’s gun rights rally in Richmond is to protest these and other gun restrictions.

Other bills under consideration in Virginia would ban the sale of assault rifles and institute a “red flag” law, which Maryland passed in 2018. Within three months of it taking effect, Maryland judges confiscated firearms from 148 people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Despite Maryland’s liberal political climate, there are gun measures that have fallen short in Annapolis. A bill to spend $50,000 on a statewide assault-rifle buyback program was quickly nixed last week after budget analysts said it would cost $1.9 million a year to administer it.

Gun rights advocates have successfully pared back the scope of some proposals.

After a gunman killed five employees of the Annapolis Capital Gazette newspaper with a legally purchased, pump-action shotgun in 2018, Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) proposed legislation that would regulate those guns the same way Maryland regulates handguns: a secondary background check, fingerprinting, a training course and a license to buy a gun.

The bill was watered down to include only requiring background checks even for private sales of rifles and shotguns. But that version, too, failed to be passed in time. Proponents of the bill said Smith’s predecessor as the Judicial Proceedings Committee chairman, then-Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), stalled the bill until the end of the legislative session.

This year, Atterbeary is again pushing the more limited version of the background-check bill. At a hearing last week, those who testified in favor of it included the widow of one of the Capital Gazette victims.

Atterbeary said objections from pro-gun groups were relatively light this year — the hearing lasted just four hours — and there “was a fresh renewed excitement about the bill” with Smith as a co-sponsor in the Senate.

Pennak, meanwhile, said his fellow gun rights compatriots have faced so many years of defeat that “there’s probably an element of exhaustion.”

Maryland has among toughest gun laws in nation following passage of 2013 bill

Prospect of gun control in Virginia draws threats, promise of armed protest

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