Maryland is one of at least three states where gun-control advocates recently failed to push through legislation to bar people on terrorism watch lists from purchasing weapons — a safeguard that is drawing new attention in the wake of June 12’s mass shooting in Orlando.
The watch-list measure never made it out of committee during the 2016 legislative session in Annapolis. It died amid pressure from the National Rifle Association, confusion about how the state could access a federal government watch list, and concerns from conservatives and progressives about people who may be on the watch list in error.
But Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said Friday that reviving that measure and other gun-control bills will be a priority next year, especially since the Orlando gunman spent time on the FBI watch list. Busch said legislative leaders will hold briefings this fall to work through some of the concerns raised during this year’s session.
“I think the incidents that have taken place in Orlando will create momentum and understanding of the need for legislation that would identify people that have problems and that are likely to commit these kinds of crimes,” Busch said. “We want to put every precaution out there to prevent those kinds of incidents from happening here.”
New Jersey is the only state with a watch-list law, which it passed in 2013. Similar proposals have languished at the committee level in other states, including Michigan and New York.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) promised six months ago that he would issue an executive order to prohibit suspected terrorists from buying guns, but he said more recently that he is waiting until the federal government allows direct access to its lists.
Gun-control bills have also stalled in Congress, although Democrats and Republicans last week proposed at least four measures, including competing watch-list proposals. A plan by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) would require authorities to prove probable cause for denying a gun purchase within three business days of an attempted sale.
Maryland’s watch-list bill was one of three that failed this year in the state’s majority-Democratic legislature, despite support from Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
The other bills would have prohibited firearms on public college campuses and required domestic abusers and felons to prove that they have surrendered their weapons to police or a registered firearms dealer within days of a conviction.
The NRA sent representatives to testify against the watch-list measure, arguing that the rolls are flawed and that the government hasn’t developed a fair process for suspects to challenge the designation — potentially allowing authorities to remove a person’s Second Amendment rights without due process.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has defended the government’s right to regulate firearms but also has sued the government over the watch lists, said authorities use “vague, overbroad, and often secret standards and evidence” to place individuals on the lists.
An ACLU-Yale Law School analysis this year found that more than 250,000 people are on terrorist watch lists used by police, and that those lists are full of mistakes.
Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore), who sponsored the House version of the watch-list bill, said such concerns did not outweigh the good the legislation could do. “I think erring on the side of caution is absolutely warranted,” he said. “It’s people’s lives we’re talking about here.”
Senate Judicial Committee Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said the effectiveness of the watch-list measure would be limited because the federal government does not share the names on its rolls with individual states.
“You’d think our state police would have unfettered access to these lists, but they don’t at all,” Zirkin said. “It doesn’t do us any good to have a list that only the federal folks can access.”
But Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said the state’s background checks for firearm purchases involve the use of 13 databases, including the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
“We would be alerted if someone was on a watch list, and we would follow up with the feds,” Shipley said. “As of this time, we have not had that occur . . . but we would investigate further, talking with federal officials about the individual’s attempt to purchase a firearm and hopefully learning more regarding what the red flag was about.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal watchdog agency, said in a recent letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that 244 people on terrorist watch lists applied for gun permits last year and that 9 percent of the transactions were denied.
As for the college campus bill, it passed the House of Delegates but stalled in the Senate amid pressure from opponents who said it would strip away protection for people who have been threatened with violence or death, and punish individuals with gun permits who are unaware they have crossed the boundary of a campus, such as while driving.
The third proposal would have required judges to notify domestic abusers that they must turn their guns over to law enforcement or a registered firearms dealer within 48 hours of a conviction and provide written proof that they had complied.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) and Del. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), was introduced after an investigation by Court Watch Montgomery found that judges told only one of 126 convicted domestic violence offenders in the county that they would be permanently banned from owning firearms. It died on the final day of the legislative session as the House and Senate failed to resolve differences over the rules for gun dealers to accept surrendered weapons and which firearms qualified for the requirement.
Domestic abuse has been linked to mass shooters, including allegations by the Orlando gunman’s ex-wife that he repeatedly beat her. Research from the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety found that 57 percent of 133 mass shootings between 2009 and 2015 involved an attacker who had killed a current or former spouse, intimate partner or family member.
Smith said he plans to reintroduce his bill next year. His office said 14 other states have enacted similar legislation, including Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire.
Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said gun-rights advocates have thwarted many attempts to strengthen firearms laws after mass shootings, including on the federal level after the 2012 rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“Every time you have one of these horrendous incidents, you think there will be a change,” she said. “I thought it would change after children were killed, but I guess not.”
The Sandy Hook shootings did spur Maryland to enact some of the nation’s strictest firearms restrictions in 2013. The state banned assault rifles, required licenses for handgun purchasers and limited ammunition clips to 10 rounds.
On Friday, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, a driving force behind the 2013 law, released a survey of voters in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District that showed widespread support for the measures that failed this year.
Ninety percent of those polled said suspected terrorists should not be able to possess firearms, 91 percent said convicted felons and domestic abusers should not be able to possess guns, and 61 percent said firearms should be banned on public college campuses.
The 6th District includes parts of Montgomery County and Western Maryland.