Seeking to make police guns useless in the hands of children and criminals, two of the state's largest police departments are investigating whether to add a new kind of push-button combination lock to service weapons.
The Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department are talking with SafTLok Inc., a small Florida company that makes the combination locks.
Unlike trigger locks, which require guns to be unloaded, the SafTLok blocks a weapon internally so that it cannot be fired even if it's loaded and the trigger is pulled, the manufacturer says. Only someone who knows the combination can use the gun, foiling criminals who might steal the weapon or children of officers who might happen upon a gun at home.
Frank Brooks, the former Marine Corps weapons instructor who invented the lock, is scheduled to travel to Baltimore Wednesday to meet with Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.
"We're inter- ested," said Baltimore Police Maj. Timothy Longo, who has been talking to SafTLok on Frazier's behalf. "If anything appears innovative and effective, the police commissioner likes to look at it."
Maryland State Police Capt. Tom Bowers said his department tested a prototype 18 months ago and has since exchanged letters with Brooks. "It's definitely something we are evaluating," said Bowers. "We're waiting to hear more, and it's something we would do if we're convinced it adds increased benefits and safety for our personnel."
Brooks, 64, designed the lock 10 years ago to protect his young grandchildren. Government figures indicate that about 800 children and teen-agers die each year from accidental gun discharges; the figures do not indicate how many of those shootings involve law enforcement weapons.
Still, adding the lock could be a risk. Firearms manufacturers say the lock is unproven, and could void their warranties if the gun misfires. Most gunmakers embrace locks that require the gun to be unloaded and have refused to work with Brooks. So, in recent months, Brooks has begun targeting the nation's police departments to demonstrate his lock's worth.
In December, Boston became the country's first big city to announce it would add the locks to its officers' guns. Earlier this month, the U.S. General Services Administration approved the lock for federal agents. Officials in Atlanta and New Orleans say they also are considering the device. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's office has urged state police and the Baltimore Police Department to consider the lock.
The lock retails for about $70. Brooks has said he's willing to offer deep discounts to large police departments. If Baltimore paid a price similar to Boston, the city would pay nearly $100,000 to equip its 3,200 officers. The state police has about half as many sworn members.
The Associated Locksmiths of America, the Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the union-affiliated Institute for Police Research have endorsed the lock, with one caveat. The institute's evaluation suggests that while on duty, officers keep their guns unlocked because of the split-second reactions necessary for the job. The locks' "greatest value to a law enforcement officer is their ability to completely secure a weapon in an off-duty situation and let it remain loaded and readily available at all times," the report concludes.
"I think it'd be great if the department supplied the lock for off-duty use," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union local. He said officers do not have an effective locking device.
The SafTLok has reached growing prominence as a safety device and as a legal and political tool. Since last October, five municipalities have brought lawsuits against the nation's gunmakers to recover costs associated with firearms violence, and dozens of others, including Baltimore, are considering suits. Lawyers in at least two of the municipalities that have filed suits -- New Orleans and Miami-Dade County -- have seized on the SafTLok as possible evidence in their cases.
They argue that manufacturers were negligent by not adding the lock to their firearms. That police departments such as Boston's consider the locks safe is further evidence of that negligence, they say.
"[Brooks'] lock persuasively demonstrates there are relatively simple, low-cost design changes that can make guns safer," says Dennis Henigan, an attorney at the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, who is co-counsel in the New Orleans case. "The industry has been intentionally ignorant by not incorporating this into its products."
In response, some manufacturers have asked police departments not to add the locks. Glock, the maker of Baltimore police service weapons, and Beretta USA, the Maryland-based manufacturer of the guns used by state troopers, have indicated to police departments around the country that adding the lock could void the gun warranty.