ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Virginia, home to the National Rifle Association's headquarters, the Nation's Gun Show and a conservative legislature, is by many measures a more gun-friendly state than Maryland.
But in one aspect of gun control, Virginia is more restrictive than its neighbor across the Potomac River. Residents of the commonwealth are almost three times as likely to be banned from owning a firearm for mental health reasons as residents of Maryland, which has been reluctant to restrict the rights of the mentally ill.
For the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, this poses a dilemma. Their determination to pass one of the nation's toughest gun-control policies in the current legislative session is bumping headlong into the desire to protect the rights and privacy of people with mental illness.
After last month's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., O'Malley was quick to join several governors, Democrats in Congress and President Barack Obama in proposing measures that would restrict access to firearms. O'Malley's plan would ban assault weapons, institute strict gun-licensing requirements — and help him cement a progressive legacy as he eyes a possible presidential run in 2016.
The package is also notable for what it does not do: O'Malley has deliberately sought to steer clear of what he considers overly expansive restrictions when it comes to mental health, saying that going too far could scare people from seeking treatment.
But some leading law enforcement officials and legislators in O'Malley's own party argue that his proposals don't go far enough to strengthen a system they believe allows dangerous people access to weapons.
"Swiss cheese would look good by comparison. It's riddled," state Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery County, said of the current system. "This is really a screwed-up situation."