A bill banning firearms at polling sites in Maryland is advancing in the state Legislature, and advocates say it is necessary to stop voter intimidation.
“Everyone should be able to vote free from fear and intimidation,” Senate bill lead sponsor Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, said at a Feb. 4 committee hearing Capital News Service viewed. “And that is especially true during these polarizing times.”
If passed, SB10, which is cross-filed in the House of Delegates as HB450, would prohibit a person from carrying or possessing a firearm within 100 feet of a polling site during an election, with some exceptions, beginning October 2021.
On-duty law enforcement officers, or officers who are reporting to or leaving duty, would be exempt from this law, as well as off-duty officers who wear a badge and conceal-carry.
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The bill states that a person who violates without knowing it is illegal would, “face a civil penalty and have the matter adjudicated under provisions that allow for a penalty of up to $5,000.”
Waldstreicher argued during the hearing that similar legislation has been passed in both Democratic- and Republican-majority states — including Texas, a state that is typically pro-Second Amendment and has open-carry gun laws.
Tim Carey, from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, testified in support of the bill and said that guns have no place in politics.
Maryland’s current laws already criminalize voter intimidation as well as prohibit carrying firearms on public school property, where many polling sites are held, according to Carey, but he says they are insufficient.
“A clear prohibition of firearms at polling locations would dissuade fears of the electorate and would send a clear message,” Carey said. “In Maryland we cast our vote with ballots and not bullets.”
Olivia Bartlett, co-lead of DoTheMostGood, an activist organization in Montgomery County, wrote in testimony in support of the bill that there is a long history of using weapons to intimidate voters, and particularly voters of color.
Both during and after the Reconstruction period in the United States, it was not uncommon for guns to be used to scare Black voters from election sites, according to Bartlett.
“Conspiracy theories, false stories about ballot security and voter fraud, and recent armed political protests raise a similar set of risks today,” Bartlett testified.
The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police also testified in support of the bill, but with an amendment that would make exceptions for off-duty and retired officers.
“Law enforcement officers are sworn to protect and serve 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Angelo Consoli, president of Prince George’s County Fraternal Order of Police, wrote in his testimony. “The commitment certainly doesn’t end upon retirement.”
During the hearing, Senator Arthur Ellis, D-Charles, raised concerns over off-duty officers being exempt from this bill because of events such as the U.S. Capitol insurrection, which he says many off-duty officers attended.
Mark Pennak from the Maryland Shall Issue Inc., testified in opposition that the bill is too broad as, “it would reach possession by persons with Maryland carry permits or persons who are simply on the way to the range or otherwise permitted location or activity.”
Pennak testified that he understands regulating open-carry of firearms at polling places and condemns voter intimidation, but suggested amendments should be made to protect concealed carry for off-duty officers and permit holders.
A Maryland resident and “wear and carry” permit holder, James Ebling, also testified against the bill as he believes it could make it near impossible for him to vote.
“I believe the safest place for my firearm to be is with me. … I must carry a firearm as part of my job and my work hours would prohibit dropping my gun at home or another safe place before heading to a polling place,” Ebling said. He told Capital News Service that he works in a pawn shop and carries a firearm at work because he handles a lot of money and valuables.
Ten states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico explicitly prohibit guns and other weapons within poll sites, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
Other states, such as Maryland, restricts guns and weapons “in certain locations that happen to be polling places, but not by virtue of their being polling places alone.”
The Senate advanced the legislation on Tuesday and is expected to have a final vote soon, and the House bill is awaiting a committee vote.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.