ANNAPOLIS, Md. – National antigun advocates have already spent tens of thousands of dollars taking gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich to task for his record on gun control.
Now, a series of sniper shootings in Montgomery County -- a pivotal region in a tightly contested campaign -- could thrust that issue to the forefront.
The Washington suburb where five people were killed Wednesday and Thursday is Maryland's most populous county with more than 870,000 residents. Polls indicate the generally well-educated, politically active and often affluent population heavily supports gun control. They're also mostly Democrats, although they've sent a moderate Republican, Rep. Connie Morella, to Congress for 16 years.
Ehrlich, a Republican, has been trying to court those middle-of-the-road residents in his race for governor against Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
As news of the deadly shootings arrived Thursday, Ehrlich released a statement saying he was "shocked by the senseless and seemingly random shootings."
"Maryland has some of the most restrictive and progressive gun laws in the nation that must be used to track and prosecute those killers," he said.
But gun control advocates, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, quickly turned Ehrlich's message against him.
"I think it's ironic that he's expressing such strong support for Maryland's gun laws when his votes as a state legislator shows that he opposed a lot of these laws," said Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the group.
The Brady Campaign has spent about $100,000 in radio and TV ads in the Washington suburbs, many criticizing Ehrlich for voting in Congress to repeal a federal law that bans the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons and for opposing as a state legislator Maryland's ban on the sale of cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials.
Police believe the sniper killings were carried out with a high-powered hunting or assault-type weapon, guns that can be legally purchased.
Hwa said the Brady Campaign would not try to capitalize on the Montgomery County killings, but there was already a "distinct possibility" that the group would run more ads on Ehrlich's record before the November election.
Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said the shootings could increase turnout among Montgomery County Democrats, and "on balance, I'd say it doesn't help Ehrlich."
"If you have a general increase in crime, it breaks in favor of Republicans and law enforcement," Crenson said. "But if you have an incident like this, the focus turns to gun control."
Ehrlich and Townsend, who have been running about even in recent polls, appeared together Friday at a conference of the Maryland Municipal League in Annapolis.
"I've always been a strong supporter of getting assault weapons off the street, but today's not a day to politicize the event," Townsend said before the conference. "Today's a day to pray for the victims."
Ehrlich, who called on U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio to step up prosecution of Baltimore gun violence in July, said the Montgomery shootings have nothing to do with gun control laws.
"I think it's time to reassess people who have guns who shouldn't have them," he said. "What we've been trying to do in this state hasn't worked."