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Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) pitched his sweeping gun-control proposal to a senate panel Wednesday while hundreds of gun-rights supporters swarmed the Senate Office Building to voice their opposition.

"We are not tying to ban handguns. This law protects legal gun ownership," O'Malley told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It is designed to stop criminals from buying guns."

O'Malley's proposed bill includes a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines as well as stricter licensing requirements for handgun purchases, such as fingerprinting and more extensive safety-training.

"This is not about ideology, this is about public safety. This is about doing reasonable things that work to save lives," O'Malley said.

Committee members including Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown and Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon challenged the administration on what they saw as the bill's potential to violate Second Amendment rights.

Jacobs argued that while the First Amendment doesn't allow a person to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, "we don't prevent people from going to the movie in the off chance they might yell 'fire.' What we do is we arrest people who abuse the First Amendment after they abuse it."

O'Malley's proposal posed a similar problem, Jacobs said. "We should not be licensing people on the off chance that they might do something wrong."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who testified with the governor, replied that the licensing provisions were crucial to preventing straw purchases — when a person with a clean record buys a gun for someone who can't.

"Loved ones will go into a gun dealer and buy a weapon for someone who is a prohibited person," Shellenberger said.

The provisions proposed by O'Malley didn't infringe on the Second Amendment, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2007 decision, Shellenberger said.

The hearing drew hundreds of prospective witnesses, creating a line of people signing up to testify that stretched from the second-floor committee room down to the front door of the Senate building.

The hearing was still in progress late Wednesday afternoon, and Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said he would try to limit testimony to four hours from opponents and four hours from proponents.

Opponents of the governor's plan also testified to its potential negative economic impacts.

Theodore Wojcik, a gunsmith and owner of the Patriot Enterprises in Easton, said the bill would likely put him out of business by outlawing the guns he sells and customizes.

The Beretta U.S.A. Corp., which is based in Accokeek and employs about 400 people, was now facing a ban on its products at a time when it was being courted by other state governments to move their investment and facilities away from Maryland, said Jeff Reh, who sits on the company's board of directors.

"We don't want to do this," Reh said. "But obviously this legislation has caused a serious level of concern within our company."

Provisions in the governor's bill barring the sale and transport of restricted weapons — which Beretta could still legally sell in other states — could also force the company to move, depending on how the proposed law was interpreted, Reh said.

dleaderman@gazette.net