Gun bill called `science fiction'

Glendening's proposal to require safety locks sparks heated debate

`It's a back-door gun ban'

February 13, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When North Carolina Highway Patrol Sgt. Phil Jones gets off his shift each workday, he removes the magazine from his .40-caliber Beretta handgun and inserts a device called the Saf T Lok.

The lock, which the Highway Patrol provides for its officers, prevents the gun from firing until its user enters a personal identification number (PIN). Jones says he uses the lock when he's off duty because "it adds some peace of mind."

If Gov. Parris N. Glendening gets his way, within two years the only handguns for sale to private citizens in Maryland would have to come equipped with a Saf T Lok or similar device. The difference is that the governor wants the device built into the weapon, so that owners could not easily bypass the lock, as Jones does while working.

It is a prospect bringing cheers from the bill's proponents and howls of protest from gun rights groups, who say such guns would be useless for quick defense. They also contend it would be impossible for manufacturers to meet Glendening's deadline.

"The governor knows this. It's a back-door gun ban," said John Josselyn, legislative vice president of Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore.

But Virginia Wolf, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, says the bill will save lives. "It doesn't take away anybody's right to have a gun," she said. "All it says is make the guns safe so the children and teen-agers can't operate them."

Spotlight on Maryland

Glendening's proposed gun safety legislation, a centerpiece of his 2000 legislative agenda, is expected to be one of the most hotly debated issues of the General Assembly session. The bill, scheduled for a hearing March 15 in the Senate, is likely to focus national attention on Maryland at a time when President Clinton is calling on Congress to invest $10 million in gun safety research.

Though the governor's proposal is best known as a "smart gun" bill, opponents say one of the most inflammatory provisions has nothing to do with the high-tech personalized weapons of the future.

It would require handgun manufacturers who want to sell their products in Maryland to equip them with built-in locks, similar to devices in off-duty use by more than two dozen police departments nationwide. The mandate, which would add an estimated $90 to $225 to the gun's cost, would take effect Jan. 1, 2002.

Law enforcement officers would be exempt under the governor's bill -- a provision that draws scorn from gun rights advocates.

Gun safety technology

Maryland legislators can expect to learn a lot about internal locks and other gun safety technologies in the next few weeks, as lobbyists and other advocates converge on the State House to support or oppose Glendening's legislation, which would be the first such law in the nation.

Glendening aides say the built-in lock is an interim step on the road to "smart guns." The bill would require the adoption of more advanced personalized-gun technologies when they become commercially available -- July 1, 2003, at the earliest.

That provision of the bill has drawn the most attention, but its effect could be mostly symbolic in the short term. The 2003 deadline is highly conditional; a state commission would first have to determine that such guns are on the market.

The deadlines in the bill were recommended by the Governor's Task Force on Childproof Guns, which held public hearings on the topic in the fall.

The governor's side

The governor and his supporters say a "smart gun" requirement could prevent many of those deaths. They say the firearms industry needs a push to adopt safety technology that does not depend on the judgment of gun owners.

Glendening dismisses the industry's contention that the technology doesn't exist.

"The industry's been saying this for a long time, and they're going to continue to resist," he said. "The bottom line is they're going to resist till the bitter end, and the longer they resist, more of our children will die."

Praise for locks

But Donald H. Sebastian, vice president for research and development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says "smart gun" technologies could take longer to develop than the governor's bill envisions. And he doubts a legislative mandate can speed the process.

"We're talking about legislating something that is still science fiction," he said.

There is nothing science fiction about the internal lock, however, and nothing conditional about the deadline the governor is proposing. That is one reason why pro-gun forces, which oppose any technology mandate, are so alarmed by the Glendening bill.

Police officers whose departments have issued the Saf T Loks give them generally high marks.

"It's worked well, and it's been well-received by our people," said North Carolina's Jones. He said it takes some training and practice to get used to the system, but he thinks it would be a useful product for people who keep guns in the home for personal protection.

Like most police officers, Jones says he wouldn't feel comfortable using the Saf T Lok on duty.

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