Maryland will be first in fight for smart guns

Glendening pursues unproven technology for childproof arms

August 27, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he believes the firearms industry needs a little push to make safer guns. He says Maryland's just the state to do it.

Today, the governor will meet with the task force he named to draft legislation to require that all handguns sold in Maryland be fully childproof. He plans to tell the 21-member panel that he does not want a bill mandating trigger locks, but legislation that calls for sophisticated "smart gun" technology built into the weapon itself.

Critics say Glendening's position is absurd -- that he wants to mandate use of a technology that does not exist and might never. But the governor plans to tell the task force that its job is not to debate whether to require safer guns but how to go about it.

The panel's work could set off one of the bigger battles of the 2000 state legislative session. Advocates on both sides say the debate would draw national attention to Maryland -- and its governor -- during a presidential election year.

"Governor Glendening, of the 50 governors, appears to be the one who has taken the lead," says task force member Stephen P. Teret, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Policy and Research.

If the governor prevails, Maryland would be the first state to adopt smart-gun legislation. National gun rights organizations and the firearms industry are determined to keep such legislation off the books. National gun control advocates believe if Maryland acts, other states will.

A similar effort in New Jersey ran aground this year, but the political dynamic in Maryland is much different. New Jersey Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman offered tepid support to the concept in a state with a Republican-led legislature. Here, a powerful Democratic governor will be leading the charge in a General Assembly dominated by Democrats.

Glendening promised such legislation during his 1998 re-election campaign but put it off for a year, citing a lack of solid information. But in a speech last weekend to the Maryland Association of Counties, he vowed to make ground-breaking smart-gun legislation a top priority in the year ahead.

In an interview this week, he reiterated his commitment, dismissing industry claims that the technology wasn't ready and couldn't be forced. He cited the federal government's role in pushing the adoption of new technologies from air bags to childproof safety caps on medicines.

"Most of these companies do not develop the safe technologies until you tell them it must be done that way," Glendening said.

Advocates can cite compelling reasons why smart guns that can be fired only by an authorized user are a worthy goal.

There is Jordan Garris of Baltimore, dead at 3 after finding his father's Ruger handgun under a mattress in June. There's Baltimore Officer James E. Young, nearly killed and partially blinded after being wounded with his own gun in a 1992 arrest attempt.

Teret, one of the nation's leading advocates of smart guns, says "the country is searching for solutions" in the wake of deadly school shootings in Arkansas, Colorado and elsewhere. "The solution that uses technology to change a product rather than looking at behavioral change is going to be very attractive," he said.

The technology could be as elusive as it is attractive, however. Most of the nation's gun companies are skeptical, if not overtly hostile, to the entire concept.

Beretta U.S.A. Corp. -- the branch of the Italian gun maker based in Accokeek in Prince George's County -- has attacked the notion of smart guns as expensive and potentially dangerous. Shortly after Glendening was re-elected in 1998, the company formed a Maryland political action committee and began soliciting donations from gun owners to fight the anticipated legislation.

Among gun manufacturers, only Colt Manufacturing Co. is in favor of developing smart-gun technology, and as a result it has become a virtual pariah among gun-rights advocates. The company has estimated that a personalized gun could be developed for the law-enforcement market within three years and for the consumer market within another three years.

That prompted gun rights clubs and firearms dealers to boycott Colt's products, cutting deeply into its sales.

While Colt is committed to the technology, it also has opposed mandates such as the one proposed by Glendening. The response to the proposed legislation has been even more vehement among gun owners' groups.

John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, says the state task force -- chaired by State Police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell -- is not technically qualified to deal with the issue. He predicts the legislation will "crash and burn" in the legislature because "you can't create technology by legislation.

"I think it's going to create a hornet's nest such as Glendening has never seen before," Josselyn says. "Basically it would amount to a ban."

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