By Aaron Davis
The Washington Post
— ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Sweeping gun-control legislation promoted by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley once appeared on a fast track to clear the Maryland General Assembly. It passed the state Senate largely intact on Feb. 28 and moved to the House of Delegates, where lawmakers held a marathon hearing on the measure the next day.
A month later, however, the bill has languished without another vote as members of the House Judiciary Committee have wrestled privately with whether to weaken O'Malley's proposed assault-weapons ban.
With little more than a week remaining in the session, and as the Newtown, Conn., tragedy made headlines again Thursday with President Barack Obama meeting with victims' family members, the bill appeared on the move.
On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee and the chamber's Health and Government Operations Committee, or the HGO, are scheduled to meet for the first time since March 1. The two have joint jurisdiction and are expected to vote on proposed amendments to O'Malley's bill.
It remains to be seen exactly what this rare joint committee will decide to do and what last-minute compromises will be worked out with the Senate. Here are five questions to keep in mind as the voting begins:
1. Will the House committee vote to weaken O'Malley's proposed assault-weapons ban? Will it even hold a public vote to do so?
Last week, key Democrats on the committee said they were reluctant to go along with O'Malley's complete ban. They said the committee was weighing whether to keep semiautomatic rifles legal. The weapons were carried by shooters in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., but are popular with sportsmen and veterans. They also have been rarely used in Maryland killings.
In recent days, however, pressure on those Democrats from gun-control advocates and the governor's office appears to have had an effect.
On Thursday, O'Malley sent a letter to supporters with the subject line "It's time," noting that it had been 100 days since Newtown. The message urged Marylanders to call delegates and urge passage of his bill.
If the votes aren't there to weaken O'Malley's assault-weapons ban, it is unlikely that leaders of the Judiciary Committee will risk a public vote, which could expose supportive Democrats to challenges on the left in next year's primary.
Although that scenario seems most likely, there also remains a possibility of a public fight among Democrats over the ban. If that happens, it is also possible a majority of the Judiciary could vote to weaken the ban but still be outmaneuvered.
The decision by the speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to co-assign the governor's bill to two committees means it could be advanced to the full House over the objections of a majority in either committee, as long as a majority of the two combined go along. Politically, that's a strong-arm tactic that the House speaker's office has seemed keen to avoid.
2. How will the House and Senate compromise on mental health?
House lawmakers appear likely to agree with the Senate on a tough, new restriction similar to one in Virginia that bans gun purchases by residents who are committed against their will for psychiatric treatment for any length of time.
Unlike the Senate, however, members of the HGO appear unwilling to go in the same direction regarding patients who voluntarily seek inpatient treatment.
Last month, the Senate went even further than O'Malley's measure when it recommended banning guns from those who end up in emergency rooms with mental problems and are then taken directly to mental-health facilities, regardless of whether they go voluntarily.
There appears to be little middle ground for compromise, so will the House or Senate version win out?
3. Could an even tougher mental-health provision enter the fold?
State Del. Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore, the HGO's chairman, has been working with the state's psychiatric association and state Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, to craft a compromise on a bill proposed by Simmons. That measure would make it mandatory for mental-health providers to report a patient to authorities if the patient makes an overt and imminent threat of harm.
Simmons' bill is similar to the recommendation of a legislative task force that last year said psychologists, educators, social workers and addiction-treatment counselors in Maryland should be required to report such threats to local law enforcement.
It is currently optional under Maryland law. Simmons seeks to make the reporting mandatory.
4. Could the joint committee make other changes to the bill?
Simmons is hoping Hammen will put the power of his chairmanship behind the mandatory reporting requirement. But if he doesn't, Simmons is likely to go it alone and try to persuade members of the two committees to attach the provision to the governor's bill. It could be one of dozens of such attempts by lawmakers when the two committees get together. Forty amendments were added to the governor's bill in the Senate.
Simmons also plans to introduce a measure that would ban gun sales to defendants who succeed in having a violent criminal conviction expunged — a far more widespread practice in Maryland than in other states with strict gun-control legislation.
5. What's the wild card?
Does House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, have a trick up his sleeve? The powerful chairman is no friend of what he calls "knee jerk" legislation. The few gun bills that have passed his committee in recent years have often taken years of refinement before winning his approval.
Vallario's power has seemingly been diluted under the joint-committee arrangement. Or has it?