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Legislators Up In Arms About Gun Policy

by Margie Hyslop

ANNAPOLIS Maryland House and Senate leaders want to stop a Maryland State Police crackdown on gun owners convicted of minor and, in some cases, long-past offenses.

"We need to concentrate our police power on drug dealers and current lawbreakers, and not look for work that's not adversely affecting our society," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat who represents Prince George's, Calvert and Anne Arundel counties.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has advised state police to use the federal law with a lower threshold than state law to take guns and deny applications for gun purchases and permits.

The federal law disqualifies persons from having guns if they've been convicted of an offense punishable by more than a year in jail, or a state offense including misdemeanors and common-law offenses punishable by more than two years.

The range of offenses punishable by more than two years is broad and includes common-law offenses, such as blasphemy and disorderly conduct. So disqualifying offenders from gun possession on the basis of the maximum sentence they could have received imposes the same penalty for nonviolent or petty violations as for serious ones.

Still, Mr. Curran points to a 1996 Maryland Court of Appeals decision that allowed the maximum, rather than actual, sentence to determine disqualification.

Delegate Kevin Kelly and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., both Allegany County Democrats, are co-sponsoring a bill that would prohibit the state from using the federal law to disqualify gun owners. Under the measure, the state could deny permits to, or confiscate firearms from, persons who actually received a jail term of more than one year.

The issue will go first to the House of Delegates, where the Judiciary Committee soon will schedule a hearing. Judiciary Committee Chairman Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr. said he is "looking strongly" at supporting Mr. Kelly's bill. Mr. Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, said Marylanders should not be automatically denied the right to carry or buy a gun unless they have served a sentence of a year or more. "Jaywalking at a high rate of speed carries a penalty of a year. We don't have offenses that carry less," Mr. Vallario said. Judges need wide latitude to sentence fairly, Mr. Vallario said, and for that reason disqualification should be tied to the sentence served.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that Maryland residents including a Baltimore man who was named a state citizen of the year have been denied permits or had their guns seized for decades-old misdemeanors for which they served little or no time. Delegate Dana Dembrow said basing disqualification on the possible sentence goes "way too far." "There's a flaw in the law that ought to be changed," said Mr. Dembrow, Montgomery Democrat. He also said that state police plans to comb databases for persons with disqualifying offenses is misguided. "I don't like it. We need to focus police resources on people who are a danger to the community," Mr. Dembrow said. Such an effort, Mr. Kelly said, is "going to criminalize a lot of law-abiding citizens, and I would not be surprised if some law enforcement officers got swept in, too."

Capt. Jack Simpson, state police director of firearms enforcement, said the computer search for disqualifying gun owners was his idea and it "became a priority." "If [police superintendent Col. David] Mitchell says, 'Make this happen,' I'm going to do my best to do it," Capt. Simpson said. Meanwhile, Capt. Simpson said, he is looking for funding for the initiative as part of a bigger statewide computer-modernization project. Capt. Simpson said the Department of State Police opposes Mr. Kelly's bill, which would forestall the initiative.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, Upper Eastern Shore Democrat, said the state has to be careful about issuing permits to carry a gun. But Mr. Baker said that persons such as Maryland citizen of the year Donald G. Arnold of Baltimore's Highlandtown, whose story was told in The Washington Times on Tuesday, should be able to get their records cleared so they are not disqualified from having a gun. "One of the big problems today with our law is, we've broken down the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor," Mr. Baker said.

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