Maneuver could free gun-safety bill

Senate would vote without OK by panel

March 23, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Senate leaders reached an agreement yesterday that could free Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun safety bill from a skeptical committee and give it a chance to win General Assembly approval in a scaled-back but still significant form.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the upper chamber would vote today on a maneuver that could bring the bill to the Senate floor without the approval of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"One way or another, tomorrow will be D-Day," Miller said last night.

Under the agreement, Glendening would accept changes to his bill removing the most ambitious attempts to push the firearms industry to build so-called "smart guns."

But the bill would retain a measure requiring that any handgun sold in Maryland be equipped with a built-in lock. The requirement would take effect in 2003, a year later than the governor had sought.

If approved, the law would be the first of its kind in the country. As an interim measure, all handguns sold as of Oct. 1 would have to come with external trigger locks.

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said the governor was "very pleased" with the compromise, which was brokered by Miller.

"It's a very strong bill, and while it does not include everything the governor initially sought, it puts us across the finish line with most of the measures that will quickly begin saving the lives of Marylanders," Morrill said.

Miller would not specify the parliamentary move that would be used, but Senate sources said the bill's supporters would invoke a rarely used rule that lets a majority of senators vote to pull a bill from committee.

If the move succeeds, it would be a strong indication that Glendening can win the 24 of 47 votes he needs in the Senate to pass the bill in form that would let him claim victory.

It would not mean he and Miller can necessarily muster the 32 votes needed to end a potential filibuster. But the Senate president has strong leverage to win votes from the chamber's 33 Democrats -- even if they disagree with the bill.

Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a leading advocate of the governor's bill, was optimistic about the legislation's chances in the Senate.

"It will be very close, but I think in the end the votes will be there to pass it," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

The Judicial Proceedings Committee has been seen as the highest hurdle for the bill. If it reaches the House, its prospects of passage are considered good.

"The Senate is a slightly more conservative body than the House at this time, and therefore it's pretty clear that whatever will pass the Senate would survive in the House," Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said last night.

Miller's prospects of prevailing could be helped by the position taken by Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, who said that while he would vote against the bill, he would not participate in a filibuster.

Baker, a conservative Cecil County Democrat, also signaled that he could eventually cast a key vote for ending debate. "I've voted for cloture before," he said. "You can't stop the business of the Senate for a special interest."

Baker had objected when supporters of the governor's bill talked about rounding up the 16 votes needed to petition the bill out of committee -- even threatening to resign as chairman. But he said yesterday that he would not feel as strongly about a move by a Senate majority to take back the bill.

"If a majority of the Senate wants something, then it probably should happen," he said.

Baker said that while he would oppose the legislation, it would be far less objectionable after it is amended to reflect the governor's agreement with Senate leaders.

He said the compromise would remove a provision setting up a commission with power to determine when the state should require not simply locks, but "smart gun" technology. The term refers to systems that use fingerprints, radio signals or other means to prevent guns from being fired by an unauthorized user.

Instead, it appeared likely that an existing state commission would be given the task of reporting to the General Assembly on when such technology is available for commercial use. Lawmakers would not be required to act on those findings.

The governor's call for built-in locks received a boost last week when Smith & Wesson reached a settlement with the Clinton administration under which the gun maker agreed to install them in all the handguns it sells.

Baker said the amended bill also would keep part of the governor's proposal to require manufacturers to give the state the "ballistic fingerprints" of guns they sell. The information is designed to help police trace weapons used in crimes.

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