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Gun battle finally reaches Maryland House


ANNAPOLIS -- The Maryland House of Delegates could take up Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun control package as soon as Monday, but the bill is expected to have a much tougher time in that chamber than it did in the Senate.

The House Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees jointly passed the legislation Friday night on a 27-18 vote, after more than eight hours of tense debate which, at points, devolved into shouting matches and accusations of stolen liberty.

The measure passed the Senate in February with less argument, but sat idle in the House for more than a month while delegates tried to work out an impasse over a provision banning future ownership and sales of assault weapons.

The proposal would strengthen Maryland's position as having some of the toughest restrictions on gun ownership in the nation.

In addition to banning new ownership of assault weapons -- Marylanders who buy them before Oct. 1 would be able to keep them -- the bill would require fingerprinting and a new license to purchase a handgun, prohibit gun ownership by the mentally ill, limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and give state police the authority to audit firearms retailers to make sure they aren't selling to disqualified purchasers.

Delegates in the joint committee killed over half of the more than 50 amendments that were proposed.

One controversial amendment, which prompted shouts in the committee, would have toughened penalties for people who commit violent crimes with guns, eliminating credit for time served or time-off sentences for good behavior.

The amendment, from Del. Michael Smigiel, R-Eastern Shore, originally passed 24-21. However, in an unprecedented move, Judiciary Chairman Del. Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's and Calvert counties, said there was a problem with the vote, and the amendment was defeated 23-23 after the second vote. Tie votes kill amendments.

That prompted roughly eight pro-gun members of the audience to storm out, some shouting "Shame on you," "You guys are a joke" and "Communists!" as they left. Smigiel, who wanted the amendment to underscore that the bill, as drafted, affected lawful gunowners more than gun-using criminals. accused Vallario of whipping his members to get them to change their votes. Republican members of the committee vowed to bring the amendment back up on the House floor.

“The liberty tree is parched!" Smigiel shouted as he cast his vote the second time around.

Delegates also killed a number of amendments that would have removed the fingerprinting provision of the bill, allowed large ammunition magazines and allowed off-duty police officers to carry their weapons in school zones.

The House receives the bill Monday with one week left in the legislative session.