Gun plan will hit dealers, foes say

Makers might avoid state rather than develop technology

`We'll be out of business'

September 28, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gun rights advocates said yesterday that any plan to require guns sold in Maryland to include advanced child safety features would put legitimate dealers out of business.

Representatives of gun owners, dealers and Maryland's largest firearms manufacturer outlined their case against Gov. Parris N. Glendening's "smart guns" initiative at a meeting of the governor's Task Force on Childproof Guns.

"What you're looking at is revolutionary public policy," said Greg Costa, state liaison for the National Rifle Association. "Deliberateness and not speed is the important thing."

Glendening has said he wants to ban sales in Maryland of any guns that do not use advanced technology to prevent unauthorized users from firing them.

Such firearms -- in the early stages of development and not available for sale -- are commonly referred to as smart guns. Some of the technologies being examined would use fingerprints, magnetic devices or radio signals to identify authorized users.

Glendening created the task force to draft the legislation, saying he hopes a law would prod manufacturers to develop the technology. If passed, it would be the first of its kind in the United States.

The governor's initiative is likely to become one of the most heatedly contested issues of next year's legislative session. Gun control advocates and opponents expect the debate to draw national attention.

Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, said Maryland is too small a state to affect gun makers' decisions. If the state requires smart guns, manufacturers will stop selling here, he said.

That, he said, could lead to the "extermination" of the roughly 360 licensed gun dealers in Maryland.

"Basically, you won't have anyone to buy them from because we'll be out of business," he said.

In testimony that was noteworthy for its conciliatory tone, the NRA's Costa told the task force that his group supports the development of safer guns, but opposes banning sales of guns that aren't "smart."

"We'd rather see the market bring these to the stores," Costa said. He offered to cooperate with the task force in its examination of the issue but acknowledged that the result isn't likely to be favorable to the NRA.

"I think I'm kind of outgunned, if you will," he told the panel.

Members seemed surprised by the tone of Costa's testimony. Co-chairman Douglas Gansler, state's attorney in Montgomery County, thanked the NRA for its "level-headed and rational presentation."

For the most part, the gun rights supporters avoided Second Amendment arguments and based their case on economic and technical issues.

Technical issues

Gabriele de Plano, product manager for Accokeek-based Beretta U.S.A. Corp., said the company has not found any of the proposed smart gun technologies to be "conceptually sound."

De Plano, backed by the high-powered Annapolis lobbying team of Gerard E. Evans and John Stierhoff, emphasized the technological hurdles that would have to be cleared and the rigorous testing that would be necessary before smart guns could be brought to the market.

But where Beretta has been scornful of smart gun proposals in the past, it emphasized yesterday that the company is open to new technologies.

"There is demand today for these types of weapons. Any manufacturer who had this type of technology and didn't use it would be silly," Stierhoff said.

Research criticism

Task force members took Beretta to task for not conducting its research and development on smart guns -- as Colt Manufacturing Co. has been doing. Colt officials could not attend yesterday's meeting but will display their smart gun concepts at a future subcommittee meeting.

Abrams told the task force that Colt would have nothing more than one-of-a-kind prototypes to show them.

"The Wright brothers had a prototype that flew 300 yards," he said, noting that it took decades for the commercial airline industry to develop.

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