Vice Chair of the Judiciary Committee Kathleen Dumias (D) talks about amendments… (Jonathan Newton/The Washington…)
On the day after a gunman killed 20 children in Newtown, Conn., Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley wrote a text messageto his chief legislative lobbyist.
“Do we or do we not have an assault-weapons ban?” the governor asked that Saturday, 10 days before Christmas.
No, Stacy Mayer wrote back.
Really? the governor responded. I thought we did.
A variety of pistols,such as mini-Uzis , were illegal. But the weapon that Adam Lanza had fired in Newtown — the semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle?
Legal in Maryland.
Three days later, O’Malley summoned Mayer and several advisers to the governor’s mansion. Until then, his team had mostly been recovering from the exhaustion of campaigning for three statewide referendums and President Obama’s reelection. They had no grand plan to take on guns as the state legislature was about to convene in Annapolis.
Now they would go after assault weapons. They would seek limits on how many bullets a gun could hold. They would regulate access to firearms for the mentally ill.
But a key piece of their agenda, as itemized in a memo that the advisers gave O’Malley, was something no state had attempted to enact in nearly two decades, and never south of the Mason-Dixon line: a new way of licensing firearms that would require fingerprinting, more-rigorous background checks and safety training.
The governor drew a star next to the licensing provision as he read the memo. He knew what he wanted.
But could he get it?
Navigating political risks
O’Malley had watched Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) face tough questioning and realized that he could easily find himself in the same predicament.
In messages to his advisers, O’Malley kept driving at the same point: Could Newtown happen in Maryland?
Taking on gun control presented political risks, not the least of which was that his opponents could portray him as an opportunist, using a national tragedy to generate headlines. A greater risk was the possibility of failure.
On Jan. 14, a month to the day after the Newtown shootings, the governor stood at a microphone at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the city where many of the more than 2,700 homicides had occurred in the state since he became governor — most of them with handguns. “There is a sickness in this country, and that sickness is gun violence,” he said.
O’Malley had been preoccupied with gun violence since his days as a Baltimore assistant state’s attorney. As the city’s mayor and as governor, he had insisted on starting each morning with a police memo listing the number of overnight homicides. Now he had national stature, a Democrat frequently mentioned as a potential contender in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.
Since the carnage in Newtown, Obama had made gun control the national issue of the moment. He vowed to push reforms through Congress. “These tragedies must end,” he said. “And to end them, we must change.”
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) widened his multimillion-dollar campaign to toughen gun laws nationwide, and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) became the first to steer stricter laws through a state legislature.
O’Malley laid out his proposal, one that would ban assault weapons and limit magazines to no more than 10 bullets. Residents buying a gun would have to give fingerprints and obtain a photo ID similar to a driver’s license. They would have to spend eight hours in a gun-safety training class.
At the same time, the governor went out of his way to mollify a constituency likely to oppose the plan: hunters. His bill would not impose restrictions on sales of rifles or shotguns. If he seemed confident about his proposal, the governor also knew that his opponents would put up a fight that would probably define the next 90 days of the legislative session.
In the House of Delegates, O’Malley knew he could count on Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). But he was less certain about many other delegates, particularly those from his own party representing pro-gun communities on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. Then there was Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the rumpled chairman of the Judiciary Committee who would need to bless O’Malley’s bill before it ever made it to the floor for a vote. A 38-year veteran of the General Assembly, Vallario saw himself as a guard against reactionary legislation. And there had been many gun-control measures in the past that his committee had quashed.
In the Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) was sympathetic to his constituents who enjoyed hunting and target practice. Guns were an important part of their lives and culture. His district was home to Beretta, the gun manufacturer he had helped lure to Prince George’s County.
For Miller, guns were personal. At his Calvert County estate, he had a large collection of historic pistols and rifles dating to the Civil War, several of which he displayed in an antique baby crib near the front door.