House passes bill for tighter control over long guns

Opponents and proponents of House Bill 4 testify during the legislation’s first hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Annapolis. The bill passed through the House of Delegates on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland House of Delegates, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, voted 87-47 in favor of House Bill 4 — a controversial measure that seeks to require background checks for secondary sales or transfers of rifles and shotguns.

The legislation has been a point of contentious debate since its introduction, with proponents arguing the law will help keep gun owners accountable for their firearms and opponents saying the law criminalizes people who simply want to share hunting rifles.

Before the vote kicked off on the House floor, Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline, who voted against what he called the “way-too-broad” legislation, said, “This is going to affect people who are borrowing guns from one another.”

The proposed law would make it illegal for a gun owner to sell, rent, gift or loan their rifle or shotgun to someone else without authorization from a licensee who is to perform a background check on a potential new owner and then lawfully facilitate the firearm transfer for a “reasonable fee.”

Exempt transfers include those occurring between law enforcement personnel; collectors with a valid license; people at a sport shooting range or gun club; between immediate family members; during a legally organized gun-involved competition, performance or practice; hunting; and if someone is in imminent danger.

“Because this bill is so broadly written, if (someone) is caught lending those guns to their friends, nieces, nephews or their aunts and uncles, they will become criminals,” Ghrist said.

But it’s not just the restrictions imposed by the law that Ghrist is opposed to, it’s the attached penalty, he said. Under HB4, an illegal long gun transfer could result in a five-year jail sentence or $10,000 in fines.

“It’s five years that they can go to jail for lending a gun to dove hunt, or to waterfowl hunt or to shoot a piece of paper,” he said. But if a stranger were to steal his gun, Ghrist argued, they would only face up to six months in jail for theft under $1,500.

In response to the opposition’s argument that the penalty is harsh, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-13-Howard, who introduced the bill, said during a Jan. 31 discussion on the House floor that any lesser penalty would “essentially just be saying, ‘Oh, well, slap on the wrist. We’ll give them six months, as opposed to a substantial penalty.’”

Atterbeary referenced people who were killed by long guns in Maryland, saying, “I think their families would thank all of us if we pass this legislation.”

Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, who also spoke before the Feb. 4 House vote, sided with Ghrist.

Mautz called the bill “severely flawed” and offered a more sweeping justification for voting down the bill.

“There are some people here who just don’t like guns,” he said. “I don’t think their issue is with background checks as much as it is with the Second Amendment.”

He said he supports background checks because “people who shouldn’t have guns, shouldn’t have guns.” But he said, “Most of the people writing gun legislation don’t own firearms, so they have a hard time understanding them.”

During a Feb. 6, interview, Mautz said a “much more workable solution” would be “just allowing people to own guns and be responsible for who they loan the gun to.”

While HB4 still has hurdles to clear before it becomes law, Mautz assured the proponents of the bill are going to push it through. Though, he said, “There’s a good chance the Senate will have a bill different from the House and they won’t be able to reconcile their differences.”

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