Key senator may call shots on `smart gun' legislation

Blunt chairman Baker dislikes aspects of bill

March 12, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening professes optimism about his well-publicized proposal to make handguns safer, but its fate may rest in the hands of a country lawyer who owns a gun and describes a key provision of the bill as "Mickey Mouse."

Sen. Walter M. Baker, the sometimes cantankerous chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, is in a position to kill the measure or to water it down to the point of irrelevance. Or, with prodding from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, he could broker a compromise that would let the governor claim some measure of victory.

"He's clearly the pivotal player at the moment," says Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a leading proponent of the legislation. "Any bill that can get out of Judicial Proceedings can survive the entire legislative process. That's always been the bottleneck on this issue."

Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, says he admires the governor's goals and wants to pass a gun-safety bill. But his idea of a good bill is a far cry from the bold, first-of-its-kind "smart guns" legislation Glendening has made a centerpiece of his legislative agenda.

The governor wants to push the industry to develop safety technologies; the senator wants to wait until the technology is in hand before requiring its use.

The bill, which comes up for a hearing Wednesday, must run the gantlet of Baker's committee before it can reach the Senate floor or the House of Delegates.

Judicial Proceedings is easily the most conservative committee in the General Assembly. It has long been the graveyard of liberal-leaning bills, including the gay rights legislation Glendening tried to get passed last year.

Ruffling feathers

Baker, the panel's chairman since 1987, is one of the most colorful characters in the Maryland Senate. The 73-year-old former prosecutor, first elected in 1978, resembles the stereotype of an old-fashioned Southern senator. In debate he is often blunt and sarcastic, punctuating his points with the twitching of his enormous eyebrows and some of the most expressive body language in the General Assembly.

His fellow senators respect his intelligence and independence, but his sarcastic remarks and undiplomatic statements can ruffle feathers. His disparaging comments recently about the Finance Committee provoked that panel's chairman, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, to call Baker a "bully."

Bromwell apologized the next day, but he is not the only one in Annapolis to express such sentiments. Baker is well known for his willingness to cut off a rambling witness or to kill a bill by never giving it a hearing.

Miller says Baker is the most conservative of the 33 Democrats in the 47-member Senate, farther to the right than many Republicans.

But Baker can be unpredictable. He describes himself as a moderate and has taken politically risky positions in favor of abortion rights.

Governor's proposal

Some gun-safety advocates have discussed ways of bypassing Judicial Proceedings, but any such defiance of its autocratic chairman would almost certainly fail without the support of Miller, who is of a mind with Baker on smart guns. Both say they want to pass a bill, and neither wants the legislation the governor proposed.

Among other provisions, the Glendening bill would require all handguns sold in Maryland as of 2002 to be equipped with built-in trigger locks. One such product requires a personal identification number to unlock it.

A commission would be appointed to certify when personalized firearms -- guns that could recognize authorized users by characteristics such as fingerprints -- are available from gun manufacturers. That panel would report to the governor, who could then require the use of that technology as early as July 1, 2003.

Baker says he would have no objection to requiring personalized handguns if the technology were available. But the chairman -- a fierce protector of legislative prerogatives -- has no interest in delegating the authority to decide when that time has come.

"I think that's the job of the General Assembly to determine when the technology becomes available," Baker says.

He is especially scornful of the trigger locks in the governor's bill, calling them "Mickey Mouse things" that would be less safe than an external lock.

With the built-in device, he says, it can be hard to tell whether the gun is locked. He also believes that gun owners, fearing that they will forget a lock's combination, will leave guns in the ready-to-fire position.

Baker says he has given Glendening his proposed changes to the legislation and that the ball is in the governor's court. Glendening won't discuss his conversations with Baker, but for now the differences between the two appear to be all but irreconcilable.


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