By Len Lazarick
The debate and vote on a sweeping new gun control measure that establishes a stringent licensing regime for handguns reflected a sharp split between two different cultures in Maryland. One shuns guns as instruments of violence and the other embraces them as essential to freedom and safety.
“We live in two different societies,” said House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, one urban and the other rural. Branch described crime scenes of gun deaths in his Baltimore City district, where he attends funerals, “sometimes it’s two a week, sometimes it’s two a month.”
Del. Mike McDermott, a long-time cop from Worcester County on the Lower Shore, agreed. “That’s a tale of two states,” said McDermott, one of the loudest voices in opposition to the gun control measure advanced by Gov. Martin O’Malley, SB281. For McDermott and compatriots, guns are a part of their heritage, a rite of passage and a source of bonding in the hunting and gun-culture.
Little understanding on each side
The two sides don’t much understand each other, but both had constituents backing their positions partly out of fear.
The urban culture fears for the safety of their homes and communities from people wielding guns. The rural culture fears that these people wanted to take away their guns, their safety and their liberty.
For the gun culture, guns are a right that came not just from the Constitution but from God. Weapons are a defense not just against those who would do them harm but a protection from the tyranny of government.
The gun owners were the most passionate on the legislation that passed the House of Delegates Wednesday 78-61. They showed up by the thousands to demonstrate and testify, even into the wee hours of the morning. They flooded legislators with emails and phone calls. They wore both camouflage gear and coats and ties, and they were predominantly white males, a group that may still pull the levers of power in Maryland, but are a distinct minority demographically, perhaps less than 10% of the population.
The other side was quieter and less visible, but according to both statewide and national polling data, much larger by far. The populace as a whole overwhelmingly favors tighter restrictions on guns in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in December. It was this tragedy that drove the debate, evoked by both sides to justify their positions on one element of the bill or another.
Agreement on mental health
Both sides overwhelmingly agreed that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill, but how to define mental illness and prevent them from having guns without discouraging treatment by health professionals was more difficult.
They parted ways on other aspects of the gun control bill. Gun control advocates wanted to ban the most awful of the semi-automatic weapons, but found “assault weapons” more difficult to define than expected, calling some of them “copycat weapons” in the bill. They also wanted to restrict ammunition clips to 10 bullets in hopes of preventing mass killings.
Advocates from the gun culture found the focus on the weapons ludicrous. One man’s assault rifle was another woman’s comfortable weapon of choice, easier to handle and fire.
Licensing the biggest sticking point
The biggest sticking point was the licensing provision. Maryland already has some of the country’s stricter gun purchasing laws, requiring background checks for all purchases and a permitting process involving state police approval. But gun-control advocates like Vinny DeMarco, who conceded that the Supreme Court’s Heller decision established a personal right to own a weapon, saw the licensing regime as the principal way to prevent guns from landing in the hands of criminals by discouraging straw purchases.
Gun control advocates, like two-thirds of the state, live in homes with no guns and couldn’t grasp how anyone could object to being trained to use a deadly weapon before it was purchased. They also wanted gun buyers to get fingerprinted as well, a provision gun owners found noxious because they believed it treated them as common criminals.
Emotions ran high
Emotions ran particularly high on the side of the debate seeking to prevent destruction of the Second Amendment Right of the people to bear arms. What part of “shall not be infringed” don’t you understand? they would ask.
What part of “well-regulated militia” doesn’t cover an additional layer of gun control? proponents asked.
In the end, the gun culture saw the law doing little good and a lot of harm. The urbanites saw it as a step in the right direction.
Presuming the Senate will go along with the House changes, the irony of the push for gun control, pointed out Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, was that it has led to a massive run of gun purchases that will continue until the new law goes into effect Oct. 1. This influx of new weapons will keep generations of Maryland citizens armed and was no victory for gun control.