A Maryland Senate panel approved a sweeping gun control bill, loosening some of the restrictions proposed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley while imposing tough new regulations on gun ownership by the mentally ill.

O'Malley's gun control proposal would impose strict new regulations on firearm ownership, including requiring a license for handgun ownership and banning assault-style weapons. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved the bill 7-4, after five hours of debate Thursday night on amendments to the measure.

The committee reduced the number of hours of training required for a handgun permit from eight to four and halved the fee from $100 to $50. During a Feb. 6 hearing on the bill, opponents argued that the high fee and costly training component would prohibit lower-income Marylanders from obtaining a pistol.

The pistol license also would require the applicant to submit a set of their fingerprints. Proponents argue that it would cut down on straw purchasers -- people who legally buy firearms for those who are not legally able -- but opponents say it is an overreach. Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington County, proposed a failed amendment to remove that requirement.

The committee also approved an amendment from Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County, the committee's chairman, to loosen restrictions on the types of weapons that would be forbidden under the bill. The proposal as originally written would have banned so-called "copycat weapons" that resemble banned assault weapons if they included one modification such as a telescoping stock, pistol grip or flash suppressor.

Also approved was an amendment that exempts certified firearms manufacturers from the ban on possessing, selling or transporting assault weapons. The amendment was made to accomodate Beretta, which has its American headquarters and a large presence in Accokeek, Md.

A big sticking point for the committee was an amendment to restrict the ownership of firearms by the mentally ill.

The committee voted to ban Marylanders who had been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, but could not agree on restrictions for people who entered mental institutions on their own accord.

Frosh proposed to prohibit people who voluntarily enter a mental institution and stay for more than 30 days, but members of the committee worried that such a restriction would discourage the mentally ill from seeking treatment.

The bill is expected to be considered by the full Senate next week, with a possible vote next Friday.