WHEN THE Maryland General Assembly convened in January, there seemed to be widespread support for closing the loophole in Maryland law that required background checks for private sales of handguns but not for long guns. The issue was framed as one of simple common sense: Those prohibited from gun ownership shouldn’t be able to buy shotguns and rifles in the private market. House and Senate leaders made the matter a legislative priority. Powerful testimony was provided by families who had lost loved ones months before to a gunman wielding a shotgun at an Annapolis newspaper just miles from the State House.
So why — how — did the legislature fail to take action on what had been widely described as a “no-brainer”? That is the question animating the capital after the session’s adjournment. Gun-control advocates blame Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Zirkin stalled, delayed and ran out the clock on this legislation,” Andrea Chamblee, the wife of a victim in last year’s Capital Gazette mass shooting, wrote in a column for the newspaper that was highlighted in a tweet from Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts. An online petition to “hold Sen. Bobby Zirkin Accountable for Not Passing Gun Safety Legislation!” was started by Everytown for Gun Safety.
Legislation to close the loophole passed both houses, and there was apparent agreement on resolving differences between the two bills, but time ran out on the last night of the session before final action could be taken. Mr. Zirkin told us criticism of him is wrong and unfair, that he supported the legislation and feels just as bad as advocates that efforts for passage were not successful. Mr. Zirkin argues there were missteps on the House side on the hectic final night of the session and there were other factors, such as a schedule shortened because of the memorial service for late House speaker Michael E. Busch.
No doubt the House shares responsibility for the procedural problems on the final night, but that doesn’t explain — or excuse — why, if this bill was so important to Mr. Zirkin, he waited until the very last minute to try to get it approved. The House took early action, but the legislation sat for weeks in Mr. Zirkin’s committee, curiously delayed. Annapolis insiders say the best way to kill a bill without having to accept responsibility is to wait until the last moment. This is not the first time Mr. Zirkin has been called to account for slow-walking legislation; most notorious were the shenanigans surrounding repeal of Maryland’s law granting parental rights to rapists.
Gun-safety advocates said they will be back in January with a renewed bid to close the loophole, which some are now calling the Zirkin loophole. The best way Mr. Zirkin can show Marylanders that name is undeserved is to make the issue his top priority next year.