Gun bill prompts trade-off

Governor vows funds for projects to those who back measure

Antitrust probe begun

Pressure to boycott Smith & Wesson leads to complaint

March 31, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

As the National Rifle Association launched an attack on his gun-lock bill, Gov. Parris N. Glendening confidently predicted yesterday the landmark legislation will pass -- and said he's trading public money for votes to make sure that happens.

Glendening said he was using his control of pork-barrel spending to ensure victory for his gun-safety legislation, which is scheduled for a critical House committee vote today.

"I will use the full resources of this office to save the lives of our children," the governor said. "We're working with people on projects in communities, quite candidly."

His comments came as Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the state has opened an antitrust investigation of the gun industry.

Curran said antitrust officials are working with New York and Connecticut to investigate whether gun manufacturers are pressuring dealers not to sell Smith & Wesson firearms in the wake of the gun maker's agreement with the federal government March 17 to sell handguns with built-in locks and to develop personalized handgun technology.

The Smith & Wesson agreement, criticized by others in the gun industry, helped Glendening win support for his legislation, which would require that all handguns sold in Maryland as of 2003 be equipped with built-in locks.

The bill, though less ambitious than the governor's initial proposal requiring personalized "Smart Guns," would be the most ambitious legislation of its kind in the country. The measure passed the Senate by a 26-21 vote Monday. Its next stop is the House Judiciary Committee today.

Glendening has been meeting with delegates on the 22-member committee throughout the past week, sometimes promising funding for local projects in exchange for their support. In typically blunt style, the governor said he is withholding a supplemental budget of more than $100 million in new spending until it's clear the gun bill will pass the General Assembly.

The dollars he's promised delegates, he said, are for school construction and neighborhood revitalization projects throughout the state.

It is unclear which projects are going for which votes. Glendening won't say, and several committee members who had been wavering said yesterday they had decided to support the legislation without securing any promises from the governor.

The NRA, in a last-minute response, is starting a statewide television campaign today featuring footage of the governor fumbling with a gun lock and laughing about it at a recent news conference.

The ad urges viewers to call House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to oppose the bill "because your safety is no laughing matter."

The ad will air on Maryland television affiliates and cable stations through Monday, appearing on such shows as "Today" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN.

"We are doing it to raise public awareness and highlight the potential problems with the government-mandated integral firearm locks," said Jim Manown, an NRA spokesman. "It's an excellent demonstration of how an average person -- I would say a bright person, like the governor -- could have real difficulty under a stressful situation disengaging these locks."

But Taylor and Glendening said they believe the ads will not slow the legislation.

"If anything, I think they're hurting themselves," Taylor said.

The governor sheepishly acknowledged he should have "gotten some more training" before demonstrating the handgun lock at a March 22 news conference, though he pointed out his bill requires training for gun buyers.

"They're trying to create a sideshow," Glendening said. "I'm confident that this legislature will do the right thing."

Glendening wants the the House to pass the bill without changes so it would reach his desk for signature without having to pass through the Senate again in the final week of the session, which ends April 10.

The Attorney General's office, meanwhile, said that on Monday, it received a complaint that at least one competing gun manufacturer was putting pressure on dealers not to do business with Smith & Wesson.

The company has been under criticism and financial pressure from gun makers and dealers since agreeing to handgun restrictions -- including built-in locks -- to avoid numerous government lawsuits.

Maryland officials contacted antitrust investigators in New York and Connecticut on Tuesday, and the three states are working together on an investigation that could produce subpoenas as soon as next week. If investigators find proof of anti-competitive acts, Curran said, his office could pursue a consent decree with manufacturers or seek civil fines of $100,000 per violation and higher criminal penalties.

"The main thing we want to do is try to stop people from harming Smith & Wesson," Curran said. "If they're trying to do the right thing and they're trying to be responsible, it's just very troubling that the others would try to stop them."

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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