A town hall meeting to discuss public safety Tuesday became heated at times as residents voiced concerns with proposals to ban assault rifles and increase the screening of handgun purchasers as part of the state’s comprehensive public safety legislative plan.
About 150 residents attended the forum led by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) and Prince George’s County Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D-Dist. 5) of Springdale at Prince George’s Community College in Largo.
“This is designed to discourage the civilian ownership of guns. There is not sufficient evidence of criminals getting guns by slipping through the cracks,” Doug Johnson of Adelphi said at the forum. “You don’t protect the defenseless by disarming the innocent.”
According to state officials, Maryland’s plan to boost public safety includes legislation — the Firearm Safety Act of 2013 — that bans the sale of assault rifles, increases background checks and licensing of firearms, requires firearm safety training prior to gun purchases and reduces the maximum magazine capacity from 20 rounds to 10 rounds.
The plan also includes a strong focus on mental health and school safety, Brown said.
“Many of you might not make it to Annapolis, so we want to hear from you. We want to amplify the voice of the community,” Brown said.
The analysis of current firearms and safety policies, officials said, stems from the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., where an armed gunman shot and killed 26 grade-school children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. The shooter used an AR-15 rifle, according to media reports, sparking national debate over gun control.
Along with Brown and Harrison, other officials on the panel included Tammy Brown, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention; Col. Marcus Brown, the secretary of Maryland State Police; Joshua Sharfstein, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; and Lillian Lowery, the state’s superintendant of schools.
Lowery said in fiscal 2014, $25 million will be allocated specifically to enhance physical school security including security cameras, shatterproof glass and electronic buzzer entrance systems, among other measures to boost school safety.
Looking at mental health, Sharfstein said the state plans to expand the categories of those prohibited from obtaining firearms and improve data sharing of individuals with mental health between state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Many who voiced opposition to the proposed firearm safety legislation pointed to Second Amendment rights, citing the right to bear arms under the Constitution, and said other factors of public safety should be examined, such as tougher criminal sentences for repeat offenders, and better identification of crime trends and gang violence.
“Debates like this are kind of a good thing, I guess, but politicians are really missing the mark. This bill is restricting us way too much,” said Bob Beaman of Mitchellville. “The right to buy a firearm is guaranteed by the Second Amendment.”
Col. Marcus Brown said the gang problem is a top priority for law enforcement across the country.
“In no way does law enforcement feel this legislation is the single thing that’s going to solve the gun problem,” he said. “As long as there’s still violence and victims out there, we know there’s more work to do.”
Zeno St. Cyr II of Fort Washington voiced appreciation for the legislation and public safety proposals.
“It’s imperative we begin a dialogue and have a conversation,” he said. “I applaud the lieutenant governor for beginning that dialogue and hope we can have a common sense gun law that protects lives.”
During the town hall, panelists referenced Prince George’s County’s recent drop in violent crime statistics, a low rate the county has not seen in nearly 35 years.
“And that’s without the added firearms ban,” shouted a man who identified himself as Scott but declined to give his full name.
The audience was scattered with county officials including Councilwoman Karen R. Toles (D-Dist. 7) of Suitland, Police Chief Mark Magaw and Assistant Police Chief Kevin Davis, Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, Sheriff Melvin High and Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Public Safety Barry Stanton, among others.
“These proactive approaches the state is taking to keep our schools safe should be applauded. We need proactiveness,” Toles said.