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Armed and Liberal

Self-Proclaimed Pro-Gun Progressive Says Proposed Assault-Weapons Ban Makes No Sense

Frank Klein
LOADED FOR BEAR: Crime victim Sebastian Sassi is lobbying against a proposed state "assault weapon" ban.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/1/2006

Sebastian Sassi says he wishes he had a gun that night in 2004 when a man crept up behind him and demanded his money. The mugger, Christopher Brooks, who was 22 at the time and lived on the 200 block of South Mason Court, had a gun of his own, says Sassi, who emptied his wallet and then followed the robber’s instructions, marching up South Charles Street away from his Federal Hill home. “That’s when I thought I was going to get shot,” Sassi says.

And so was born a self-described “pro-gun progressive,” blogger, and gun-rights activist. Sassi says he cornered Mayor Martin O’Malley on Feb. 9 after a press conference unveiling the latest bill to ban assault weapons. The bill, introduced by state Del. Neil Quinter (D-Howard County), would prohibit most people from owning military-style guns similar to those banned by a 1994 federal law that lapsed in 2004. Although supporters say the ban would “save lives,” similar bills have failed to pass the Maryland legislature for years. O’Malley, with Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm at his side, spoke in favor of the ban. Sassi wanted to get the mayor on record as opposing, or supporting, the right of citizens to defend themselves with firearms. “Mister Mayor, what do you think about a law-abiding citizen with the proper training and licensing carrying a defensive weapon?” he asked O’Malley, according to his blog.

He says O’Malley replied, “I don’t have a problem with that, and we have licensing procedures in place that people should follow.”

Maryland has extremely restrictive gun laws, requiring citizens to show good cause for carrying a gun. And yet Baltimore’s crime rate, even if it’s as relatively low as the mayor claims, is staggeringly high. Last year, 216 people were murdered by firearms in Baltimore, one more than had been shot to death in 2004. Guns are used in Baltimore to commit crimes every day—most of them illegally obtained, unregistered, and carried without a permit.

Gun control has been an issue in previous gubernatorial races, with then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ridiculing Robert Ehrlich’s opposition to the federal assault-weapons ban during the 2002 race, which Ehrlich won. Both O’Malley and his Democratic rival for the gubernatorial nomination, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, support an assault-weapons ban. Duncan, however, was not invited to the press conference.

Sassi, a Democrat, says he hopes to educate O’Malley and others who would further restrict gun ownership in Maryland to what he says is the folly of gun control. He admits it’s an uphill struggle—but the proposed ban appears to have little chance of passing this year. “We’re keeping an eye on this one,” Sassi says of the bill. “It’s got a lot fewer co-sponsors than it got last year. I think the Democrats are getting the message.”

The National Rifle Association sent out e-mails after the press conference, urging its members to “Tell Mayor O’Malley that the people of Maryland do not support his efforts to play politics with the rights of law-abiding gun owners, who are the only ones who will be affected by this proposed legislation,” and including the mayor’s office phone number.

Mayoral spokesman Rick Abbruzzese says the office got “maybe 10 or 12 calls” about the press conference from people who identified themselves as pro-gun people. Though he would not elaborate on O’Malley’s position, he wants it made clear that O’Malley is not against guns. “As the mayor said in his remarks,” Abbruzzese says, “it’s not anti-hunting legislation.”

A year after he was mugged, Sassi took a safety and tactics course in Virginia—where, unlike in Maryland, such courses are required for those who want to carry a concealed weapon, he says. As a result, Sassi says he is competent to assess threats and is unafraid to use his gun if he’s ever confronted by a criminal again. “I don’t want to ever have to shoot anyone,” he says. “But the next person to rob me might not be as charitable as Christopher Brooks and might actually decide to take a shot at me. I don’t see how you can argue that a law that makes sure that I’m disarmed and he isn’t is a fair law.”

Sassi, who says he moved last November from Federal Hill to Pigtown and has lived “on and off” in Baltimore for the past six years, says he has a Virginia permit and carries a semiautomatic handgun that would still be allowed under the proposed Maryland ban. But Sassi also points out, like the NRA and kindred groups do, that “assault weapon” is an arbitrary legal designation that covers some semiautomatic firearms but not all. Gun-control groups have used the military appearance of these weapons to imply that what they’re banning are fully automatic machine guns.

Some of the features banned in Quinter’s bill, which is designed to augment an existing Maryland ban on “assault pistols,” seem meant to cause alarm. “It includes a grenade launcher or flare launcher,” says Michelle Wirzberger Pierce, executive director of Cease Fire Maryland, which has lobbied in favor of the ban. “You don’t need that to protect your family!”

But machine guns have been banned (for everyone save police and licensed gun dealers) since 1934. Grenade launchers are not legal for civilian use anywhere in the U.S., and actual grenades are rare even on Baltimore’s streets. Semiautomatic guns fire one bullet per trigger-pull, just like old-style revolvers do. The difference comes mainly in ammunition capacity—some semiautomatics accept clips with 20 or even 30 bullets—and in style.

The federal government banned a long list of “assault weapons” and high-capacity ammunition clips in 1994. The ban created a thriving market in so-called “pre-ban” guns and clips, but its effect on violent crime is disputed. In 2004, President Bush allowed the federal ban to expire, over the objections of gun-control advocates.

Like the expired federal ban, Maryland’s proposed state ban defines “assault weapons” as guns that can hold more than 10 bullets; include a threaded barrel that can accept a silencer or flash suppressor; or have a shoulder stock that folds or that you could stick your thumb through, or a bayonet mount.

Attempts to find out how often Baltimore police seize such weapons from criminals were unsuccessful.

Sgt. Derrick Lee, a Baltimore police officer in the department’s Legislative Affairs Unit, says he’s not an authority on assault weapons. But he applies a cop’s rule of thumb regarding weapons generally: “Bad guys get illegal guns, good guys get legal guns,” Lee says. “Guns themselves aren’t good or bad; people who handle guns are good or bad.”

Sassi insists that he is one of the good people, and would be no matter what kind of gun he possesses. Christopher Brooks, he says, falls into the other category.

On Sept. 28, 2004, right after he was sure his mugger had fled, Sassi called 911. He says police arrived almost immediately. Riding in a patrol car, Sassi says he pointed out Brooks to police, who gave chase. Brooks fled on foot, and ended up on a nearby rooftop, where police shot him. “He’s in a wheelchair, permanently, apparently, and just got sentenced to five years with 10 suspended,” Sassi says.

So the police did their job, but Sassi still wants a gun. He says he thinks he could have pulled his weapon and “got the drop” on Brooks, even though Brooks surprised him from behind.

Sassi says just the act of carrying a gun makes a person less likely to be caught off guard. “When you’re carrying you are hypervigilant,” he says. “You have this tremendous responsibility; you have to be extremely careful not to reveal [the gun] or let someone take it away. I made myself a target by walking slow, looking at the ground, talking on my cell at 10 p.m.”

Even if an assailant fires, he may miss, or he may only wound his victim, Sassi reasons: “If I’m hit and live, I can return fire.”

And so, Sassi spends his spare time prowling the halls in Annapolis, educating lawmakers. “People think of the gun nut as a redneck in the woods chasing deer with an AK-47,” he says. Sassi thinks being a “pro-gun progressive” gives him an edge in the mostly Democratic legislature, and he’s sure he’s making progress.

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