When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s controversial gun-control bill came up last week in the state Senate, lawmakers held an open hearing that drew more than 1,000 people and lasted more than eight hours.
But so far, members of the House have considered the proposal in secret, with the speaker and other key lawmakers meeting with lobbyists, experts and state officials in a closed-door conference room that has been off-limits to the public.
The 16 members of the group — dubbed the House Working Group on Gun Safety — were assembled by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to consider what could be some of the nation’s strictest gun-control measures.
On Tuesday, they spent two hours with a top National Rifle Association lobbyist. On Wednesday, they spent two hours hearing from gun dealers. Previously, they spent two hours each with sheriffs, gun-control advocates, O’Malley’s secretary of health and the state superintendent of schools. They plan to meet Thursday with prosecutors and Friday with police.
All of that will have taken place before the House holds its first public hearing, scheduled for March 1.
The group’s 14 Democrats and two Republicans were chosen mostly from the two House committees expected to vote first on O’Malley’s bill. And a number of them said in interviews that what they’ve heard in the closed-door sessions has influenced their opinions.
The governor’s proposal would require licensing and fingerprinting of gun buyers; ban assault weapons; and increase the number of mental health patients precluded from owning firearms in Maryland.
Busch defended the closed-door sessions in an interview, saying the meetings are exempt from Maryland’s open-meeting laws because the working group fits the mold of previous, if rarely used, groups organized to consider contentious legislation.
A reporter was denied entry to the group’s meeting Wednesday, and requests to attend other meetings also were rejected. Busch’s staff pointed to an attorney general’s opinion that validated the closed-door policy of a working group created to build consensus on legislation to expand casino gambling, which voters approved in November.
The opinion, issued in June, held that the casino working group was not subject to open meeting laws because it was not created by the state constitution or other statute and because it did not have a majority of members of a standing committee of the legislature.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, criticized the closed-door meetings, saying that any meeting of elected officials that could influence a vote should be open to the public.
“The public has a right to be part of this process, especially on an issue as sensitive as gun control,” she said.
Busch, who strongly supports the governor’s bill, said the group’s daily deliberations on the measure were exactly the kind of thoughtful work that lawmakers are elected to do. “We’re not doing it all behind closed doors; this is about gathering information for use by legislators,” Busch said.
The speaker added that the private meetings have prevented the sort of grandstanding that could become a sideshow in a public hearing. “Once we have the public hearing and the work starts on the legislation,” he said, “those are obviously open to the public.”
In interviews, several members of the group, including both Republicans, backed up Busch. They described the meetings as primarily educational.
But the interviews also indicated that the meetings have begun to have a potential effect on the legislation that reaches the House floor.
A majority of members said the meetings have helped persuade them to support at least part of a strict new licensing requirement in O’Malley’s bill, which would, among other things, force prospective gun buyers to complete an all-day shooting and gun training course.
On the other hand, several said the private meetings have raised concerns about the mental health portion of the bill and about whether passage is feasible in the remainder of the 90-day session.
The House group has come under criticism from some leading Republicans and even some Democrats.
“It’s not good public policy to have those meetings as such,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who agreed with Busch on one point: “The volatility of the subject matter means views can be expressed candidly . . . that would not be said in public otherwise.”
Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Allegany), a member of working group and one of its most outspoken critics of the governor’s proposal, said he feels that most of the House group backs the governor’s plan.
“It’s all window dressing,” Kelly said of the process.
Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant (D-Baltimore) described the meetings as collegial. “This allows us to work out all the kinks in the bill,” he said. “It’s not that its secretive. . . . This is our dining-room-kitchen-table kind of conversations. It is allowing us to sit down like family and hash things out.”