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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
Gun debate crucial for Maryland election
A school bus passes a memorial
A memorial to a victim of the sniper in Maryland

It is often said in American political circles that all politics is local.

In local ballot initiatives, Nevada, Arizona and South Dakota are considering partial legalisation of marijuana.

North Dakota voters will decide whether to pay college graduates $10,000 to stay in the state, and Seattle voters will decide whether to expand the city's mono-rail system.

But the sniper who has shot 13 people and killed 10 in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC has made the gun control debate a hot local issue there.

In Maryland, where seven people have been shot and six killed, gun control has suddenly become an election issue in the race for the governor's house and in a fiercely fought congressional race.

Gun control credentials

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1 in Maryland.

But voters in that state have sent moderate, some say liberal, Republican Constance Morella to the House of Representatives eight times.

Her opponent, Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jnr, has tried to say the race is about the different priorities of the two parties, including gun control.
A woman grieves at the site of a shooting
Maryland has been shaken by the sniper shootings

But both candidates are making the most of their gun control credentials.

Mrs Morella boasts of her endorsement by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Mr Van Hollen counters that he has been endorsed by organisers of an allied organisation, the Million Mom March.

Mrs Morella is pushing for a law that would strengthen background checks to prevent convicted criminals, the mentally ill and those guilty of domestic abuse from buying guns.

Mr Van Hollen is touting a five-point gun safety programme including a federal ballistic fingerprinting system similar to one he helped pass as a state legislator in Maryland.

The system would build a database designed to help authorities match bullets with the guns they were fired from.

It is one of the nation's tightest races as the two parties battle for control of Congress.

Gun battle

Although there is little distance between the two Maryland candidates for Congress on gun control, there is more space between the candidates for governor of the state.

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is trying to make the most of it.

Mrs Townsend is from America's first family of politics. She is the daughter of Robert Kennedy who was assassinated as he ran for president in 1968.

Bob Ehrlich voted with the NRA to repeal the Assault Weapons Ban and allow AK 47s and Uzis to be back on our streets

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Both she and her Republican opponent, Robert Ehrlich, are looking for advantages as election day quickly approaches. The latest poll showed only a point separated them.

Mrs Townsend recently unveiled an advertisement campaign sharply critical of Mr Ehrlich's record on gun control.

The ad says that Mr Ehrlich, a member of the House of Representatives, voted "against banning assault weapons and cheap handguns".

A spokesman for the Ehrlich campaign called the ad shameful. "Now's the time to lay off. There are people burying loved ones," he said.

Some fear the sniper could drive down voter turnout and could affect the outcome of close races, such as the governor's race.

Democrat officials in Montgomery County are urging their supporters to apply for absentee ballots so they can stay safe at home and cast their vote.

Governor Parris Glendening is considering using National Guard troops to provide security at the polls.

Not a national issue

Nationally, gun control is not expected to make an impact on most races.

President George W Bush
The Bush administration is studying a plan to "fingerprint" guns
But Congressional leaders from both parties have been hesitant to press the issue.

In the first weeks of the shootings, Tom Daschle, the Democrat leader in the Senate, said Congress should wait until authorities understood more about the motives of the sniper before pressing to reopen the debate on gun control.

More recently, he said that Congress should explore the idea of ballistic fingerprinting.

The Bush administration originally balked at such an idea, but hours later said it would study the scheme.

Key races




See also:

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