Firearms research proposed

Funding complements `Smart-Guns' bill, would help Beretta

$3 million in budget

Governor, lawmakers see fairness in aiding required technology

January 13, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein and Thomas W. Waldron | Gady A. Epstein and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is proposing to spend $3 million over three years on gun safety research in an attempt to win support for his child-proof guns legislation.

The funding proposal is likely to benefit Maryland's only handgun manufacturer, Beretta USA Corp., which some legislators worry would be threatened by Glendening's "Smart-Guns" bill.

That legislation would require all handguns sold in the state to be equipped with built-in mechanical trigger locks and, eventually, a high-tech system to prevent anyone other than the owner from using them.

Beretta would be eligible to receive the research money, which is earmarked for developing Smart-Guns technology. Academics and other Maryland businesses could also apply, but the governor and legislative leaders gave every indication yesterday that the money is intended to soothe Beretta and the company's advocates in the legislature.

"If you're going to force the technology, it's only fair that you help pay for it," Glendening said.

The governor met with Beretta chief Ugo Gassalli-Beretta and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to discuss the funding idea around Thanksgiving, officials said.

"One of [Beretta's] two facilities just happens to be located in the district of the Senate's president and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee's district," Glendening said with a smile, referring to Miller and Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., both of Prince George's County. "They were very enthusiastic about [the research funding]."

Top legislators said that though the spending proposal may look like a gift to Beretta, it seems appropriate.

"Sounds like Beretta money to me," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "The idea of taxpayer money going toward trying to improve this kind of fundamental safety technology is a worthy use of tax dollars," he added.

Beretta officials could not be reached for comment yesterday. The company has said that Smart-Guns technology is not practical and has raised money through a political action committee to oppose supporters of the idea.

The company's State House lobbyist, John R. Stierhoff, said he was not familiar with the governor's budget proposal.

The money would be spent only if Glendening's Smart-Guns bill wins passage. Taylor and Miller said they expect it to pass in some form, despite tough opposition.

The idea behind Smart-Guns technology is that each handgun would be equipped so that only the owner or another authorized user could fire it, perhaps through fingerprint identification. Maryland would be the first state in the nation to require such technology, which gun manufacturers say is years away from practical use.

No state in the nation requires handguns to be sold with built-in trigger locks, though some require that removable locks be sold with handguns.

The Governor's Task Force on Child-proof Guns recommended in November that all handguns sold in the state have built-in trigger locks by 2002, and that they have personalized safety locks by 2003 if the technology is commercially available. The task force included a recommendation that state grants be considered "for anyone conducting personalized gun research and development."

Glendening formed the task force in anticipation of making gun safety legislation a centerpiece of his General Assembly agenda this year.

Handgun trigger locks have become a growing national issue in the past two years as several cities have brought suits against gun manufacturers, in part for failing to install locks that would prevent accidental or unauthorized firings.

President Clinton is expected to include $10 million for gun safety research in the budget he will submit to Congress next month.

Miller and other legislators have expressed concern that if Smart-Guns technology were required and Beretta didn't have it, the company could be hurt competitively.

"If it can be used in a positive manner by Beretta, and if Beretta agrees to this concept in terms of research, I'm certainly in accord with the governor's proposal," Miller said.

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