State seeks safe guns

Governor's task force to draft legislation on childproof weapons

Campaign pledge renewed

Reliable technology hasn't been developed, firearms dealers say

June 06, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In an effort to keep children from using handguns, Gov. Parris N. Glendening created a task force yesterday to draft legislation requiring that all new guns sold in Maryland be childproof.

The push to prohibit the sale of all but childproof handguns renews a campaign pledge made by the governor last fall and -- depending on how quickly the legislation is approved -- could make Maryland the first state in the country to have such a ban.

But the proposal will face strong opposition from gun dealers and other opponents of gun legislation, who say that reliable technology doesn't exist and warn that it would prevent Marylanders from buying new handguns.

The governor's move is setting up what could likely be the toughest battle of the 2000 General Assembly session -- a fight that the governor's aides said he is ready to wage.

"We must do everything we can to end the tragedy of mothers and fathers losing their children to firearms," Glendening said in a statement yesterday. "Maryland will continue to offer national leadership in reducing the terrible trauma of gun violence."

The executive order signed yesterday by the governor also requires all state law enforcement officers who carry guns in the line of duty to be issued locking devices for their weapons and to use the devices when weapons are stored at home. Such a policy already is in place for the Maryland State Police, and the change would mostly affect state college and university police forces.

The task force -- to be led by Col. David B. Mitchell, the Maryland State Police superintendent -- will examine various technological options to make handguns childproof and prevent them from being fired by unauthorized users.

"It's outrageous that it's easier to fire a gun than to open a bottle of aspirin," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said in a statement. "Handguns must be designed with internal safety devices so they can only be fired by responsible adults."

Options include internal mechanical locks -- such as a new push-button combination lock for service weapons being looked at by both city and state police -- as well as electronic devices that personalize handguns, creating what are often called "smart guns."

One electronic option includes microchips that include authorized users' fingerprints. Another would equip guns with tiny radio receivers, and authorized users would have to wear bracelets or rings with small radio transmitters to fire the weapons.

"The technology is ever breaking, and we will find the best technology available that can render handguns safe," Mitchell said.

Though gun manufacturers are developing such safeguards, no reliable ones exist, said Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association Inc.

"You can't make technology out of nothing, even if you pass legislation," Abrams said. "If the governor manages to get this thing passed, we'll all be out of business because you can't sell guns that don't exist.

"If we're out of business, that means no one in Maryland can buy new guns because you have to buy guns in the state you live in."

But gun-control advocates said there is technology to make guns safer. All that manufacturers need is an extra push from legislation.

"It's like seat belts and air bags," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, whose past efforts to pass childproof-gun legislation have failed. "Car manufacturers fought against them and said they weren't possible, but then the government said we need to build safer cars and suddenly they became standard."

One goal of the task force also must be to prove to legislators and Marylanders that childproof handguns are possible, said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, a panel that has often thwarted new gun-control legislation.

"If the advocates can prove there is such a thing as a childproof gun, then [the legislation] shouldn't be a problem," Baker said. But if the proof isn't there, he said, "it just won't happen."

The task force will try to determine what is technologically possible through public hearings and its own research, Mitchell said. He said that any safety requirements placed on new guns would have to be acceptable to police officers.

The governor called for the 21-member task force -- which includes four other Cabinet members -- to report to him by Dec. 1. Other members to be appointed by the governor include four law enforcement representatives, a health care professional with experience treating gun-related injuries and seven community members. The legislature's presiding officers also will appoint two senators and two delegates.

The appointments should be made soon, and Mitchell said he hopes the group's first meeting will be within two weeks.

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