BERLIN — Legislation making Maryland’s gun control laws among the toughest in the nation have moved closer to reality with the passage of the governor’s bill by the Senate and the House expected to soon follow suit.

In the wake of the school shooting tragedy in Connecticut last December, Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced legislation in the General Assembly increasing the licensing requirements for handgun purchases, banning the sale of assault-style weapons, limiting gun ownership of people with a history of mental illness and increasing the amount of information sent to databases for background checks.

The governor’s bill passed a key hurdle last week when the Senate voted 28-19 to approve the legislation and now heads to the House where it is widely believed to have an easier path. State senators debated the bill for 11 hours last week and attempted numerous amendments before the final vote.

Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) was among the minority that did not vote in favor of the bill.

“Although this bill was not in my committee, our office received nearly 2,000 calls and emails from my constituents and our neighbors in opposition,” he said. “Colleagues on both sides of the aisle tirelessly joined me over the past three days attempting to persuade the majority of the Maryland Senate of the root causes of heinous gun violence, including mental health issues, increased non-paroled sentencing for gun crime perpetrators.”

Mathias said the proposed bill stops short of addressing many of the causes of increased gun violence.

“Societal realities affecting behavior such as video games and movies depicting mass murder are the real issues not adequately addressed through this legislation,” he said. “These issues, not additional burdens of costly permits, training and other required processes placed on law abiding citizens most effectively address gun violence.”

With the positive vote in the Senate, the bill now moves on to the House, where, as anticipated, thousands of Marylanders from every corner of the state including a large contingent from the Lower Shore showed up to testify on the legislation at  a hearing last Friday that lasted well into the night.

Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) said the majority of the hundreds that testified did so in opposition to the bill.

“Well over a thousand signed up to testify against this bill and only a very few testified in favor of the bill,” he said. “In fact, except for the professional panels that came in support of the governor, which was about 20 people, everyone else has been opposed.”

McDermott said the large contingent in opposition represented a cross-section of the state’s citizens.

“We have heard from retirees and 10-year-olds, people in suits and people in working uniforms, people of great means and people of lesser means, and people from Worcester and people from Prince George’s,” he said. “All in all, we have heard from Maryland and they do not want this bill passed.”

McDermott said the bill’s passage could have a steep economic cost as well.

“We heard from Beretta Arms, who strongly suggested they would seriously look at moving from Southern Maryland to another state,” he said. “This echoes what we have heard from other manufacturers of firearms in Maryland. Losing Beretta alone would mean over $400 million to our state coffers.”

O’Malley opened the testimony in the House with an impassioned plea for state delegates to follow the Senate’s lead on the bill.

“This is not a choice between our security and our freedom,” he said. “This is a choice between whether we will be responsible or whether we’ll be irresponsible. If we want better results, we have to make better choices. We are not here only because of Newtown. We are here because of the loss of lives due to gun violence in all of our towns.”

Local law enforcement officials were also well represented at the House hearing, including Worcester County Sheriff Reggie Mason, Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby and Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis among others. Lewis said as a career law enforcement officer and avid sportsman, he opposed the legislation.

“As a life-long resident of Wicomico County and an avid hunter and fisherman, my views are certainly stronger than some others,” he said. “However, I echo other Maryland sheriffs when I say I oppose any law or regulation that infringes or restricts a citizen’s right to protect himself or his family, the true reason for our long-standing Second Amendment rights.”

Lewis said the Maryland Sheriff’s Association has agreed to work with the governor and the local delegation on several issues related to gun control and public safety. For example, the association supports closing background loopholes to keep guns out of dangerous hands, working with prosecutors to vigorously prosecute those that commit crimes with firearms, making schools safer by enhancing security and working with administrators on planning for critical incidents, and increasing access to mental health services for at-risk patients.

“I agree with these common sense points of discussion which identify the real issues associated with gun control that do not infringe on a citizen’s right to bear arms under the Second Amendment,” he said. “I’m very proud to say that I have been a grunt in the trenches, and I feel qualified to say Senate Bill 281 will do nothing to reduce, suppress or stem the flow of gun crime on the streets of Maryland.”

Lewis had an ominous message about the potential impacts of passing the legislation.

“Due to Maryland’s lack of vigorous prosecution of gun crimes, and Governor O’Malley’s determination to abolish the death penalty, along with this new proposed legislation, there is tremendous incentive for criminals to move to Maryland to resume their criminal activities,” he said. “Our law-abiding citizens, now discouraged from legally purchasing a firearm due to these proposed hurdles, can only stand by and watch these criminals flourish in their old profession of terrorizing innocent citizens. These are nothing more than ‘feel good’ proposals that do absolutely nothing more than impact our law-abiding citizens …”