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A passionate search for “sensible” gun laws

Christopher Connelly

Every year a corps of public service lobbyists descends on the General Assembly to petition their state government for change. And none of them are more passionate than those advocating for “sensible” gun laws. But with a number of gun bills under consideration “sensible” remains in the eye of the beholder. 

For Jen Pauliukonis, a Parkville mother of two, it was the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Mass., that gave her life new purpose.

“I sat around and I cried and I cried,” she recalls. And then she decided she was “complicit” in the killings because she “never once stood up and said, ‘I want to do something.’”

The Congress of the United States did nothing. It failed even to order the background checks for gun purchasers – something Maryland did in the 1990s and recent national polls show vast majorities favor.

For Pauliukonis, it was her moment.

“How could I not do something?” she asked. “I didn’t want my children seeing me every day not doing something.”

She joined a national group. But she wanted something focused on Maryland and Baltimore with its 344 gun deaths last year. She called Vinnie DeMarco, head of Marylanders against Gun Violence – and now she’s the group’s legislative director.

She says Maryland has a good record on this issue, but needs to do more and that misinformation may be the biggest obstacle to progress in this emotionally-charged issue.

“A lot of people think we’re anti-Second Amendment and that’s just not true,” she insists. “I believe under restraint of the Second Amendment we can find some common sense solutions.”

State lawmakers have filed nearly 80 gun related bills this session. Many of them are tied up in committee, but two, a ban on carrying guns on public college campuses and one clarifying how domestic violence offenders turn in their guns, have passed both chambers.

The pro and anti-control sides held dueling rallies recently along Lawyers Mall down the hill from the State House steps. The antis held their usual don’t take our guns placards. The other side, led by Montgomery County Senator Jamie Raskin, urged the gun group to “Join us.” There were no immediate takers.

But John Mountjoy of “Maryland Shall Issue,” -- what he called a human rights organization – said there are areas of agreement. “We absolutely support sensible gun laws.”

Yet his group’s definition of “sensible” doesn’t square with Pauliukonis’s. He’s in favor of arming teachers, for example, which Marylanders Against Gun Violence opposes.

He can’t say, however, whether that would have helped at Sandy Hook.

“Who knows?” he wondered. “I do know that in Newtown the heroic principal and her secretary were faced with the decision of defending their school, the children with staplers, rulers and pencils. If one of those ladies had had the right to and had the ability to carry a fire arm they could very well have stopped it.”

Pauluikonis says more guns are not the answer. Talking, searching for solutions is more likely to reduce the likelihood of such killing, she says. She’s even had some conversations with other leaders of “Maryland Shall Issue” – which make her hopeful that conversations can happen.

But Senator Raskin said hope for real action lies with people like Pauliukonis -- people who’ve had enough.

“It’s the only thing that will work,” he says. “The entrenched pro-gun interests have always been the NRA. And the only way to defeat that is with massive popular involvement.”

He says it was after Sandy Hook that people like Jen Pauliukonis got involved. And they seem to be in it for the long haul.

“In a democracy you just have to keep pushing the stone up the hill,” Raskin says.

Pauliukonis says more people are ready to take their turn pushing.