Legislature poised to pass gun lock bill

Filibuster bid fails

compromise version widely supported

`Smart gun' idea dropped

Maryland to become first state to require internal firearm locks

March 25, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland General Assembly appears on the verge of enacting the first law in the country requiring built-in handgun locks, as plans for a Senate filibuster collapsed with surprising speed yesterday.

Opponents of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun safety legislation threw in the towel, removing the most serious obstacle to passage of the groundbreaking bill and clearing the way for a final Senate vote Monday.

Although there is a chance the bill could still be derailed on its way to the governor's desk, Glendening wasted no time yesterday in claiming victory on one of the key items in his year 2000 legislative package.

"When this bill is in place, lives will be saved," the governor told a hastily called news conference. He predicted that at least a half-dozen other states would follow Maryland's lead over the next 18 months -- increasing the pressure on manufacturers to produce safer guns.

The bill would require an internal mechanical trigger lock in any handgun sold in Maryland by 2003. As part of a compromise, it was amended to drop the governor's original idea of requiring so-called "smart-gun" technologies as early as that year, but the governor said the legislation gives him 90 percent of what he wanted.

Opponents dropped their plans to filibuster as it became clear that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would muster the votes to end debate. The legislation is expected to pass Monday with several votes to spare -- including those of as many as four Republicans.

The bill still needs to clear the House of Delegates, but the governor and his allies believe they have enough votes to pass it with a comfortable margin. It is still possible that the bill could hit snags in the House Judiciary Committee, but House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has indicated he favors passage of the Senate bill.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to the bill yesterday after amending it to reflect a compromise between Miller and the governor gave the once-languishing bill new momentum. Senators also adopted several noncontroversial changes suggested by Republican senators as their price for dropping their filibuster plans.

Greg Costa, Maryland liaison for the National Rifle Association, expressed anger over what he called a "travesty."

"It's a shame the politics of this process have been dictated by Al Gore and the Washington agenda," he said, referring to the Clinton administration's support for greater gun safety.

Partisans on both sides said a key turning point in the struggle came last week when Smith & Wesson agreed with the Clinton administration to introduce guns with internal trigger locks at about the same time the governor proposed to require them.

"Smith & Wesson's sellout has given cover to every anti-gun politician," Costa complained.

Miller and other senators had balked at requiring smart guns -- using such technologies as radio waves or fingerprint identification to recognize an authorized user -- because they are not yet available in commercial form.

Gun safety advocates applauded the trigger-lock provision, which would kick in by 2003, a year later than the governor had proposed. It would not affect guns sold before that date.

"It's not 100 percent of what we wanted, but it is a way to stop some suicides and some accidental shootings and some stolen-gun homicides," said Eric Gally, lobbyist for Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse.

The peaceful resolution to what was expected to be a contentious debate came after the administration and GOP senators reached an agreement yesterday morning that let the bill move forward.

The deal came less than a day after an acrimonious clash on the Senate floor over Miller's use of a seldom-invoked rule to pull the bill out of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where opponents held a majority. After losing that vote, conservative Republicans had promised to filibuster until the bill was killed or watered down to the point that Glendening wouldn't accept it.

By yesterday morning, collegiality had returned to the Senate floor, where onlookers witnessed the unusual sight of liberal Montgomery Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and conservative Carroll Republican Timothy R. Ferguson jointly sponsoring amendments to a gun bill.

Ferguson, who represented conservative Republicans in negotiations with the governor last night and this morning, put the best face on the gun rights advocates' retreat. He pointed to the elimination of any "smart guns" mandate -- a concession Glendening and Miller had negotiated earlier in the week.

The Carroll County lawmaker said that, while he believes the internal trigger locks are technological "overkill," they were not unduly intrusive on individual rights because the gun owner can choose to leave the devices unlocked.

"This entire bill now is a bill that allows the owner of the gun to manipulate the gun. It is not the gun manipulating the owner," Ferguson said.

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