Lawmakers put finger on guns

April 02, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

BY NOW, the governor's "smart gun" bill should be a dead duck in the Maryland General Assembly.

After all, the two presiding officers and the two committee chairmen handling this legislation have philosophical problems with gun bills. Their conservative constituents don't like government telling them how to use their firearms.

And the original bill sought to mandate a technology that doesn't exist. Such wishful thinking usually goes nowhere in the practical world of the state legislature.

Yet a modified version of the governor's gun-safety bill has surmounted its biggest hurdle. It could become a national model.

How this turnaround happened illustrates why consensus politics remains the driving force in Maryland government.

The state Constitution makes the governor dominant in Annapolis, with enormous budget-making muscle, jobs to spread around and the ability to help lawmakers please voters back home.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening made the "smart gun" bill his legislative centerpiece. He sought a breakthrough in gun-safety technology, envisioning built-in safety locks with high-tech advances, such as fingerprint or voice identification. The idea was to prevent children from gaining access to guns. It might deter theft of firearms, too: Handguns with personal-identification devices would be useless to those who steal them.

But the governor faced strong opposition. The National Rifle Association and local gun dealers were literally up in arms over the bill. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller greeted the high-tech gun-lock mandate with skepticism. And the bill had to get through the tough Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The governor told lawmakers not to expect help from him on other issues unless they supported his gun bill. He worked assiduously, and with great diplomacy, to find a way to satisfy Judicial Proceeding's proudly conservative chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker.

Still, the bill hit a brick wall in Judicial Proceedings. No matter how the governor tried, he couldn't get the votes to free the bill.

Then Mr. Miller intervened. He loves the give and take of the legislative process. He has great respect for Senate protocol. Yet he understands the pressures on urban and suburban Democrats to enact stronger gun-control laws.

As the governor openly talked of circumventing Mr. Baker's committee, Mr. Miller worked out a deal with the chairman so the Senate could "take back" the gun-safety bill from his committee.

He then persuaded Mr. Baker not to participate in an expected filibuster on the Senate floor.

In exchange, Mr. Miller got the governor to modify the bill.

Gone are the high-tech safety-lock mandates on gun manufacturers. What's left is a sensible gun-safety bill that requires external locks to be sold with guns immediately; internal locks on new guns in three years; mandatory gun training for new gun applicants; and a ballistics fingerprint of all guns sold to help police trace guns used in crimes.

What made this compromise possible was a deal struck last month by Smith & Wesson with the Clinton administration to include internal safety locks on its handguns in three years.

That let both the governor and Mr. Baker give ground and essentially adopt the Smith & Wesson approach for Maryland. Neither man lost face.

Then another shocker: The filibuster evaporated. Behind the scenes talks between Republicans and Mr. Miller led to extended debate when the bill was open to amendments -- but no stalling tactics. It was pragmatic recognition that a filibuster would only delay the bill's inevitable passage.

In the House of Delegates, Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has been doing his own jawboning to get the gun-safety bill out of Joseph F. Vallario's conservative Judiciary Committee without any amendments attached to it.

Senators Baker and Miller don't want to see the bill returned to their chamber: That would trigger a lethal filibuster.

Mr. Taylor is no fan of gun-control measures. His Western Maryland constituents despise government intrusions. But he recognizes there's a strong majority in the House for this bill.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor feared this could become a "killer" issue -- driving bitter rifts between legislators and creating the possibility that hundreds of bills might die because of the tie-up over gun safety.

The two men are partisan politicians, too. They won't give state Republicans an advantage. They want their Democratic governor to succeed. That means working out ways for Mr. Glendening to win his legislative battles even when Mr. Taylor and Mr. Miller disagree with him, as they often do.

They're skilled practitioners of the art of the compromise. Mr. Glendening, after some rocky moments, also has learned the subtle give-and-take techniques needed to coax controversial bills through a reluctant legislature.

The result is likely passage of a gun-safety law Mr. Glendening can use in his drive for a Cabinet seat in the Gore administration (if there is one) next year.

But the bill is significantly altered -- stripped of its naive and unrealistic high-tech mandates and reshaped to mollify, somewhat, conservative lawmakers.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor have succeeded in defusing this explosive issue before it could damage personal relations and put the all-important final week of this General Assembly session in jeopardy.

What's taking place isn't pleasing to zealots on either side, but that's not where legislative battles are waged. Mr. Miller, Mr. Taylor, and eventually Mr. Glendening, held the middle ground, which is where most issues get resolved in the Maryland State House.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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