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Maryland Gov. O’Malley to push for tougher gun-control rules

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Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will seek to institute some of the nation’s strictest gun-licensing requirements, ban assault weapons and restrict visitor access to schools in one of the most expansive government responses sought to last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Perhaps most controversially, O’Malley (D) will ask the General Assembly to force prospective gun owners to provide fingerprints to state police, complete a hands-on weapon-familiarization and gun-safety course, and undergo a background check to be licensed.

And the governor is seeking new measures to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illness who show violent tendencies.

(Read: How the National Rifle Association became one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in America.)

The coming gun-control debate in Annapolis, where Democrats reign, will contrast starkly with the discussion in Washington and the contortions that will be needed to get any gun-control legislation through a divided Congress.

O’Malley’s plan, which administration officials described Sunday, positions him among a cadre of Democratic governors, including New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seeking aggressive gun-control legislation in state capitals. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide the details, which have not been previously disclosed.

Regionally, O’Malley’s efforts are likely to further widen a cultural divide on gun control between Maryland and Virginia, where Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s call for stricter gun control after Newtown.

Responding to O’Malley’s emerging plan Sunday, Maryland Republicans said the gun-control measures appeared ill-suited to prevent another Newtown and seemed more tailored to the governor’s political goals.

“This looks like crass opportunism from politicians who want gun control,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert), who would need to peel off support from several Democrats to derail O’Malley’s plans.

“The reality is Martin O’Malley is trying to get to the left of Cuomo in New York because he wants to run for president in 2016,” O’Donnell said.

O’Malley plans to announce the gun package this week, when he formally introduces the rest of his legislative package for the 90-day session, aides said. He will offer a preview of his gun measures, they said, on Monday, when he introduces New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) at a summit in Baltimore on reducing gun violence.

‘Too much killing’

O’Malley, who first made his name in politics as a tough-on-crime Baltimore mayor, signaled his intent to develop a gun-
control package just days after the Newtown shootings, telling reporters, “I think we have too many guns, and I think we have too much killing.”

“You look at some of these guns, and it’s just hard to conclude that these guns should be in the hands of anyone who isn’t a soldier on a battlefield or a law enforcement officer sent into a tactical situation,” O’Malley said at the mid-December news conference, which took place shortly after he pulled several Cabinet officials together to start looking at a response.

Administration officials said O’Malley had considered extending the licensing requirement to the state’s hundreds of thousands of current gun owners. But he backed off of that controversial measure, which would have faced strong opposition from even some Democrats.

Many of the proposals to be put forward by O’Malley parallel initiatives that Congress will debate in coming weeks, and O’Malley has acknowledged that an assault-weapons ban, like the federal one that expired in 2004, remains a measure that would be “a lot more effective on the national level.” There are 46,719 assault weapons registered in Maryland, according to state police.

Like New York and other Democratic-controlled states considering the most aggressive reforms, Maryland is already quite restrictive. It requires that all private transfers of guns be handled through a licensed dealer, requires purchasers to watch a safety video and limits purchases of guns to one per 30-day period. Maryland’s laws last year received a grade of a B from the California-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gives the state a score of 45 out of 100. Virginia scores 12.

Maryland is not among the six states that ban assault weapons, although it has outlawed some semiautomatic pistols.

The state is among six, plus the District, that limit the sale of high-capacity magazines. Of those, however, Maryland is the least stringent, defining large capacity as those holding in excess of 20 rounds. O’Malley’s plan would halve to 10 the number of rounds that magazines would be allowed to hold in Maryland. A poll released Sunday showed that he will start efforts to sway the legislature on his gun-control package with broad public support for that measure, as well as for restricting the sale of assault weapons.

O’Malley’s plan includes a blanket ban on all assault weapons, and aides said it would focus particularly on features that enhance a weapon’s lethality.

A bigger say for the state

More broadly, however, O’Malley’s plan would give Maryland a far greater say in all future gun sales, limiting purchases to those who qualify for a license, which aides said would be issued by the Maryland State Police.

The governor’s plan would, for the first time, require almost all prospective gun owners in the state to submit to digital fingerprinting. Buyers seeking hunting rifles and shotguns would be exempt from the licensing requirement. Currently, only those seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon must submit to fingerprinting.

To purchase handguns and other types of firearms, however, a buyer who is deemed eligible for a license would subsequently still have to complete all existing steps to obtain a gun permit, including submitting to a second background check at the time of purchase and abiding by a seven-day waiting period before receiving the weapon.

Vincent DeMarco, a Maryland-based public-health advocate and gun-control activist, said the sort of licensing system that O’Malley is proposing can significantly curb “straw purchases” — the buying of a gun for someone who is prohibited by law from possessing one. DeMarco said a straw purchaser would be unlikely to risk going to a state police barracks and submitting to a fingerprinting no matter the money that could be made off facilitating the transaction.

Straw purchases remain a particular problem in Prince George’s County and in Baltimore, Maryland law enforcement officials say.

“It really is the most effective tool a state can use to reduce gun deaths,” DeMarco said. “I’m thrilled Governor O’Malley is proposing this. Straw purchases is the way criminals get guns.”

O’Malley’s plan also addresses access to guns by those under mental health treatment. His plan would give police new authority to take guns away from state residents ruled mentally incompetent — whether for psychiatric disorders or for old age.

Authorities would also be able to ban guns from psychiatric patients subject to civil commitment if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Mental health issues

The O’Malley administration’s effort embraces some of the recommendations made this month by a task force on guns and the mentally ill that was appointed by the state government.

But the governor’s emerging package departs from one of the central recommendations made by the task force.

The group had called for new mandatory reporting requirements for psychologists and a host of other professionals, including social workers, addiction treatment counselors, educators and probation agents. Someone who threatens “serious violence” toward a particular person or threatens to commit suicide would have to be reported to local law enforcement officials, according to the task force recommendations.

The O’Malley effort takes a different approach. It broadens the categories of people prohibited from possessing firearms beyond the current standards, which include that a person suffers from a mental disorder and has a history of violent behavior or that a person has been confined for more than 30 consecutive days in a facility that treats mental disorders.

The administration is calling for two additional categories: people under guardianship who can’t care for themselves or manage their affairs and those who have been civilly committed, if a judge finds evidence that they are a danger.

The state would also establish a 24-hour hotline for people to report a family member or friend who they think is suffering a sudden mental decline in late adolescence.

O’Malley’s plan steers clear of calls from the National Rifle Association and some leading Republicans in Congress to put armed guards in schools. Instead, he proposes spending $25 million in the coming year to begin to tighten physical security at the state’s public schools, including using uniform video surveillance, automatically locking doors, and using shatterproof glass and buzzer entrance systems.

Kate Havard and Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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