Maryland lawmakers passed a handful of gun bills this year, permitting civil lawsuits against the gun industry and banning devices that turn handguns into machine guns.

Top Democrats representing some of the state’s most liberal districts championed the bills. They fought for measures they say are needed to bridge legal gaps, fund trauma centers aiding gunshot victims and improve public safety by preventing gun violence.

Here’s a roundup of this year’s changes that made it through and one that began the session with strong momentum then fizzled out in the final days.

Civil liability for gun industry

Following the lead of eight other states, lawmakers stripped the gun industry of nearly two decades of broad civil immunity from lawsuits provided by federal law.

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The Gun Industry Accountability Act was approved by both chambers and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

While Maryland already has a slew of criminal penalties for those who sell to people prohibited from owning guns or buying guns on behalf of others, the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005 shields the industry from civil lawsuits unless the state has a law that allows them.

Democrats Sen. Jeffrey Waldstreicher of Montgomery County and Baltimore County’s Del. N. Scott Phillips say that needs to change. Their bill would give the Office of the Attorney General and the legal counsels of Maryland counties and Baltimore the power to file civil suits against firearms industry members who “knowingly” create public harm.

Firearms industry members are defined in the bill as anyone that sells, manufactures, markets, imports or distributes firearm-related products in the state, including firearms, ammunition and accessories.

Industry members should be liable, both in criminal and civil court, when they don’t take reasonable precautions to keep firearms out of the wrong hands or knowingly distribute to people prohibited from having them, Waldstreicher said.

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“Why should the firearm industry have immunity to one of those systems?” he said.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Democrat from Montgomery County, attends a news conference announcing new juvenile justice legislation in the Maryland State House lobby on Jan. 31, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Gun industry advocates say they fear such a law would open a host of frivolous suits against businesses whenever gun crimes are committed.

But Waldstreicher and Phillips say that’s not true and that plaintiffs would have to meet a high legal bar in order to prove damages and that the defendant knew they were doing something harmful.

As the bill was being debated on the House floor, Phillips said, “This is about getting people to stop and do the right thing. This is about bad actors.”

In his written testimony in favor of the bill, Attorney General Anthony Brown, a Democrat, blamed the industry for much of the nearly 800 people killed each year in Maryland by guns. He amplified his point by citing an anti-gun violence report that revealed, nationally, “only 5% of gun dealers are responsible for 90% of recovered crime guns.”

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The industry, Brown wrote, “has done far too little to keep guns and ammunition out of the hands of those who are not allowed to have them or who would use them to do harm.”

Del. Scott Phillips, a Baltimore County Democrat, sits in the House Chamber in the Maryland State House on March 15, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Gun industry lobbyists have criticized laws like this spreading across the country, saying manufacturers and retailers aren’t responsible for any one person’s decision to break the law.

Jake McGuigan, managing director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., said the industry should not be held civilly responsible for an individual’s criminal misuse of a firearm. McGuigan argued the better option is to use the laws already in place to hold criminals accountable, and suggested increasing mandatory minimums for people who use guns to commit crimes.

McGuigan made this comparison: “Your car is parked in your driveway. Somebody comes in, steals your car and gets into a car accident. Does that mean that you or Honda should be liable for that?”

He said his members follow gun laws, conduct background checks and are vigilantly looking for straw purchasers. He’s concerned the bill will fuel politically motivated attacks on the industry that is doing everything it can to prevent illegal gun activity.

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“The last thing the industry ever wants to see is a prohibited person using a firearm in the commission of a crime,” he said.

McGuigan added that his organization, in partnership with other groups and government agencies, have invested millions of dollars into responsible gun ownership programs that work to prevent suicide, provide more than 40 million child safety locks, and educate retailers on how to spot straw purchases.

But not all gun dealers and manufacturers are members of McGuigan’s organization, said Mary Kenah,policy counsel with Everytown for Gun Safety.

She said frivolous lawsuits should not be feared by responsible gun dealers who are taking reasonable measures to guard their inventory and be wary of straw purchasers.

“This law, at the end of the day, is not trying to go after every gun dealer in Maryland, it’s trying to go after the gun dealers that are putting the crime guns on the streets,” Kenah said.

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Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announces proposals to combat violence and address violent crime during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announces proposals to combat violence and address violent crime during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Pamela Wood)

Gun violence prevention

Gov. Wes Moore’s bill to create a center to study gun violence as a public health crisis made it through the legislature, but lawmakers knocked down the Democrat’s funding request in the budget.

The center will be housed under the Maryland Department of Health and seeded with $2 million instead of the $10 million Moore requested.

The Democratic governor rolled out the measure in January with a host of public safety proposals. Moore said the idea came after President Joe Biden’s administration set up the Safer States Initiative, urging jurisdictions to take action against gun violence.

House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones conducts business from her podium on “crossover day” in the Maryland State House in Annapolis on March 18, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Banning Glock switches

Maryland banned devices that turn semiautomatic handguns into automatic weapons.

Also known as auto sears, Glock switches, giggle switches and buttons, Baltimore Police recovered at least 59 in 2023, a review of firearms the department seized last year shows.

The machine gun conversion devices turn a handgun into a weapon that can fire more than 1,000 bullets per minute. They are inexpensive and made out of metal or plastic and can be purchased online or replicated with 3D printers.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, makes it illegal to being an auto sear into the state.

Those found guilty of the violation could face misdemeanor charges of up to three years in prison and fines up to $5,000. If the auto sear is used in the commission of a felony, the person found guilty could face from five to 20 years in prison.

No tax on guns, ammunition and accessories

A bill to add a sales tax on guns, ammunition and firearms accessories failed to pass this year. The proposal sponsored by Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Anne Arundel County and Del. Bernice Mireku-North of Montgomery County, both Democrats, didn’t complete its run through the legislative gantlet.

Amendments turned what was first proposed as an 11% excise tax paid by retailers into an additional 5% sales tax passed onto consumers.

The bulk of the revenue from the added tax would have funded the state’s internationally acclaimed shock trauma center, which treats the vast majority of gunshot victims around the state, and also send funding to gun violence prevention and victims’ support efforts.

During Senate floor debate, Republicans questioned whether the bill would pass constitutional muster because they said it levied a tax on a constitutionally protected right to own a gun.

Sen. Chris West compared the tax to a similar tax on ink struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue. The 8-1 decision written by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said Minnesota had “created a special tax that applie[d] only to certain publications protected by the First Amendment.”

The Republican representing Carroll and Baltimore counties said it’s essential that the state provide funding for the critical state resource but not by placing a burden on a “small number” of the constituents in the state.

This article has been updated to correct the county Del. Bernice Mireku-North represents.

Baltimore Banner reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this story.

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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