ANNAPOLIS, Md. - When hunters argued that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed assault-weapons ban would ruin their sport, state lawmakers were not moved. When devotees of the National Rifle Association cried that it would trample on their constitutional rights, lawmakers did not blink.
But then there were the soldiers, who showed up in Annapolis by the dozens this year and quietly became one of the most influential critics of O'Malley's gun-control plan. Veterans streaming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have argued that freedoms they fought for overseas would be violated at home.
Some also came with a different, more complicated message that has resonated with lawmakers, who are now considering significantly weakening the proposal by O'Malley, a Democrat, by exempting several military-style weapons.
The very guns the veterans used in war - the ones they sang about in boot camp, slept with, cared for, cleaned, prayed with, the guns that led them down dark alleys and through firefights - have now become something altogether different. They are instruments of catharsis more than violence, a postwar release, therapy through the crosshairs.
Since he has returned from Afghanistan, A.J. Wynne, 24, who was a corporal in the Marines, has spent countless hours shooting in the farmland north of Frederick, Md. On a recent Sunday, he picked up his semiautomatic rifle, put down his demons and let muscle memory take over.
Breathe. Focus. Squeeze.
The weapon erupted into a violent cacophony - 30 shots in 11 seconds - and sent the crows in the trees bolting skyward.
The smile made his beard rise. He reloaded.
"It's not yoga - it's not graceful in any sense of the word, but I could do this all day long," he said. "It's just something that you go do to relax, to calm down."
Wynne knows there are those who would argue that he is perhaps the last person who should be given unfettered access to high-powered, semiautomatic rifles that are designed to emulate the weapons he was trained to use in battle.
For months after coming home, Wynne would lunge to the ground at the sound of a weapon firing or a car backfiring. At night, he would awaken to find himself wrestling an invisible enemy, flailing and slamming the nightstand and leaving his girlfriend, Tara, cowering at the end of the bed.
The nightmares have subsided, but guns have become an ever bigger part of his life. He sells them, trains people how to shoot them, collects them, and has positioned them around his home so they are never more than a few steps away.
As the House of Delegates debates O'Malley's bill, the veterans' argument appears to be having an effect. After passing the Senate, the legislation is bogged down in an influential House committee, where lawmakers say they are concerned about the effect of the assault-weapons ban. Members of both parties say they are considering rolling back provisions of O'Malley's ban, potentially leaving legal for purchase many semiautomatic rifles modeled after military ones.
State Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said veterans and competitive sportsmen were central factors in her thinking that a total ban may be inappropriate.
"We have problems with soldiers returning from combat and taking their own lives. That's a big deal, and we need to talk about that overall in this country," added state Del. Michael McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican and former member of the U.S. Army Reserve. "But banning these weapons? For some guys, that's actually therapy. They go to the range. They enjoy shooting sports. It's something that helps them recover and have balance in their lives. If we start taking that away, it's only going to hurt, not help."
That's far from a universally accepted premise.