All but one of the Democrats from Maryland’s congressional delegation recently agreed to co-sponsor a year-old firearms bill from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would create federal financial incentives to help states set up handgun-licensing programs.
Three of those lawmakers said they would support the legislation after last week’s mass shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub.
Additionally, the Democratic candidates for Maryland’s two open congressional seats, former lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown and Del. Jamie B. Raskin (Montgomery), have said they will back the licensing bill if they win in November. They face Republicans Dan Cox and George McDermott, respectively, in the general election.
Democratic Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who will not be in Congress next year after she lost a bitter Senate primary race to Van Hollen, has not co-sponsored the bill.
“There is momentum building in this country,” Van Hollen said of the push for stricter gun laws. “The question is: When will that momentum break through the wall of the NRA on Capitol Hill? There were already some cracks, and the slaughter in Orlando made those cracks even bigger.”
Van Hollen, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, introduced the legislation last year, but it has stalled at the committee level.
Advocates say that licensing laws help reduce firearm homicides. They point to a Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research study that found gun-related homicides in Connecticut dropped by 40 percent over 10 years after the state adopted a licensing law in 1995, whereas such homicides in Missouri increased by 25 percent after the state repealed a similar statute in 2007.
But gun rights advocates have argued that permit-to-purchase laws restrict the constitutional rights of peaceable Americans to bear arms but do not block criminals from obtaining firearms through illicit means such as theft, straw purchases or the black market.
Rep. Andy Harris, a conservative Republican from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has not supported Van Hollen’s measure.
Maryland enacted a handgun-licensing law in 2013 as part of a broader gun-control package that also banned assault rifles and limited ammunition clips to 10 rounds.
But gun-control supporters say more states need to require licensing for firearms purchases, because the weapons tend to flow from states that lack permitting laws to those that have them, with the guns frequently landing in the hands of criminals.
Van Hollen gained five Maryland co-sponsors for his legislation since May: Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Delaney, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes. Delaney, Hoyer and Sarbanes signed on after the Orlando massacre.
A recent poll of residents in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District — a swing district that includes parts of Montgomery County and western Maryland — shows strong support in that region for Van Hollen’s proposal.
The survey, sponsored by Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, showed that 63 percent of the district’s registered voters support federal legislation that would “encourage other states to enact handgun licensing regulations by helping offset the costs of implementing handgun purchaser licensing.” Twenty-four percent said they oppose such a measure.
Forty-three percent of registered voters in the 6th District are Democrats, and 32 percent are Republicans.
The poll informed respondents before they answered the question that data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed that 44 percent of guns traced to Maryland crimes in 2014 came from other states.
The survey also tested which congressional candidate for the district they would favor under two hypothetical scenarios involving incumbent Delaney and Republican challenger Amie Hoeber, a defense consultant and former high-ranking Pentagon official.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they would vote for or lean toward voting for Delaney if he supports the licensing bill while Hoeber opposes it, compared with 23 percent who said the same of Hoeber in that situation.
The results flipped when respondents were asked who they would favor if Hoeber supports the licensing measure while the incumbent opposes it. Forty-four percent said they would vote for or lean toward voting for Hoeber, compared with 32 percent for Delaney.
“That shift indicates a significant level of underlying concern about handgun licensing on the part of voters,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, an Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll.
Ten states and the District of Columbia require permits to purchase handguns, but the Maryland border states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia do not.