Senate approves gun bill, but not without heated late debate

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After some procedural maneuvering and heated debate, the Senate gave final approval on an expansive gun bill about 30 minutes before midnight Friday.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) summarized a gun bill on the Senate floor on April 7, 2023 (Courtesy Maryland Matters/William J. Ford)

The 28-13 vote on House Bill 824 focuses on expanding prohibitions on those who can possess firearms.

The vote may not have happened if Sen. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City) didn’t make a motion to reconsider a special order that would have postponed additional debate until Monday.

The postponement came after Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) successfully attached an amendment to the bill that would have allowed a person who completed a sentence for illegal gun possession to enroll in a firearms training course. And, after completing the course, that person could petition a judge to convert their sentence to a “probation before judgment,” which would allow them to legally possess a gun again in the future.

Twenty-seven senators — 15 Democrats and 12 Republicans — voted in favor of the amendment, over the objection of Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery).

But Hayes, who originally voted in favor of Carter’s amendment, joined several others in reconsidering their votes. Ultimately, the Senate voted 28-14 to withdraw Carter’s amendment, which paved the way for the Senate to cast a formal vote to approve the bill.

Smith, who urged his colleagues not to approve Carter’s amendment because there wasn’t enough time to work out complicated details, praised Carter’s idea and said he would like to review it next year. But he cited issues with the proposal up for consideration Friday, including that wouldn’t be “practical” to conduct in person instruction with individuals incarcerated who wouldn’t be permitted to hold a firearm.

“When you’re conducting these classes, it’s hard not to have an actual firearm in the actual classroom,” Smith said. “You’d also have to screen people to say, ‘Are you a prohibited person?’ There’s a lot of liability that comes with that process.”

After Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) requested a recess that lasted approximately 16 minutes before the Senate voted on the overall bill, he and Carter took part in an animated discussion on the chamber floor.

In a brief interview after the vote, Carter expressed deep frustration with what she views as a generalized lack of focus on restorative justice and equity in policies passed by the legislature.

“We sent a message to people that you are unacceptable to be a part of our society,” by not adding her amendment, Carter said.

The ultimate defeat of her amendment in the chamber was particularly tough, Carter said, because it came as progress has stalled on other policies she cares deeply about — restricting police searches based on the odor of cannabis and allowing jury service by convicted individuals who have served their full sentences.

The bill awaits a final vote in the House of Delegates. It is one of two major pieces of gun legislation navigating through the General Assembly in the final hours of the 90-day legislative session.

Lawmakers crafted the gun measures after last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down New York’s law that restricted carrying concealed guns in public.

The Supreme Court ruled that a person no longer needed to demonstrate a special security concern to obtain a license to carry a concealed gun in public, saying the requirement violated the Second Amendment. The decision in the case of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen — known colloquially as “Bruen” — affected gun laws in Maryland and several other states in addition to New York, where the law was challenged.

Senate bill moving through House

On Friday afternoon, the House of Delegates granted preliminary approval for Senate Bill 1, which restricts where firearms can be carried. But House amendments to the bill condensed restricted areas and changed penalties for violations.

The amended bill would still prohibit gun owners from carrying them at places including hospitals, preschools, election polling sites and state or local government offices. A slightly more than 90-minute debate focused on the overall bill and based on several amendments the House Judiciary Committee advanced Thursday.

The House also amended the penalties previously passed by the Senate for illegal wear, carry or transport of a gun.

Under the amended bill, someone could face up a year in jail, a fine up to $1,000, or both. The same penalty could be imposed if a person trespasses on private property without permission or enters a property with a “a clear and conspicuous sign” that doesn’t allow for firearms.

Del. April Rose (R-Carroll) asked Judiciary Chair Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) if a person would be allowed to carry a firearm inside a church if it also houses a preschool or school.

Clippinger said if a property owner such as private school or a business gives a gun owner permission to carry a firearm, then yes. However, the person wouldn’t be permitted inside the part of the building where a school is located.

Rose said some churches have classrooms in a hallway and people must walk by them to get a specific part of the church.

“Churches provide nurseries. If you want your gun with you at church, but you have to take your child to the nursery that’s in the same building, you have parents who are suddenly criminals,” she said.

Clippinger admitted that Rose’s question could be decided by the courts.

Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-Cecil), who said he has a concealed carry permit, didn’t approve of the bill because he felt it had too many unresolved issues.

“I believe that [gun owners are] being unfairly targeted in this bill,” he said. “If I’m reading the tea leaves on some of the things that are coming out of the Supreme Court decision in the lower courts, I think this bill will be immediately challenged upon this passage.”

The bill could come up for a final vote in the chamber on Saturday.

Senate revisions

Friday night’s Senate vote capped a fast-paced week of negotiation over the gun measures.

On Thursday night, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee amended House Bill 824, which is sponsored by Clippinger.

The bill’s prohibition on who can carry guns includes those who are fugitives from justice, “a habitual drunkard,” and people who suffer from a mental disorder and have a history of violence “against the person or another.”

The Senate scaled back an increase in gun permitting fees that had been approved in the House. While delegates doubled fees for a wear-and-carry permit from $75 to $150, the Senate settled on a more modest increase. The Senate set the fee for a wear-and-carry permit at $125.

Clippinger has said the fees haven’t increased since 1992.

Other amendments passed in the Senate include provisions that would:

  • Require the state Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy to issue a detailed annual report on gun violations.
  • Expand some firearm training requirements.
  • Make sure an application notes a person’s county of residency, race, ethnicity and gender.

Elizabeth Hilliard, acting director of government relations for Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said in a statement Friday that the office has opposed increased incarceration and felony convictions.

Hilliard referred to an “11th hour” addition to the House version that would extend the maximum sentence from three to five years for possessing a handgun without a wear and carry permit. That comes from a proposal from Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates (D).

“Research shows that carceral responses to gun violence are antiquated and ineffective,” Hilliard said. “Rather than regurgitating and expanding ineffective punitive approaches, the General Assembly should promote proactive safety measures that invest in communities and respond to the factors that underline gun possession.”

After Friday night’s vote, Smith said the House measure goes back to the House of Delegates and if those members agree with the Senate amendments, it would head to the desk of Gov. Wes Moore (D) for his signature.

“It’s a significant victory for the people. It’s going to make us a lot safer, especially in reaction to Bruen [case] in balancing the realities of violence, gun violence, and also the realities of more guns being in public places and spaces,” he said. “I think that this is a good bill and will make us safer here in Maryland.”

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