Gun-safety bill clears final hurdle

House votes 83-57 to require built-in handgun locks by 2003

April 04, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland moved to the forefront of a national movement to make firearms safer last night as the General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that will require handguns to come with built-in locks.

The bill goes to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for his signature. The governor proposed the gun-safety measure and spared no effort to push it through the legislature.

His victory came on an 83-57 vote in the House of Delegates after legislators turned back repeated attempts to amend the bill. That would have sent it back to the Senate, where it risked defeat in the final days of the Assembly session.

Glendening said the measure will set a new standard for gun safety.

"The bill makes a giant step toward creating safe communities, not only in Maryland but across the country," said Glendening, who received a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton minutes after the vote.

Though the legislation is a compromise that eliminated the bill's original focus on high-tech "smart guns," advocates praised it as the strongest gun-safety measure passed by any state to date.

"Once something starts happening in a state, other legislatures start looking at it very seriously," said Joe Sudbay, political director of Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.

The legislation will require that all handguns sold in Maryland as of Oct. 1 come with external trigger locks. As of Jan. 1, 2003, the guns will have to be equipped with built-in locks that supporters say will help prevent accidental shootings, suicides and the use of stolen handguns in crimes.

Another provision will make Maryland the first state to require manufacturers to submit bullet casings from each gun so that police can trace weapons used in crimes.

The bill will not apply to any of the estimated 1.2 million handguns already in circulation in Maryland.

Opponents argued that the legislation will endanger gun owners who will end up fumbling with unwieldy locks as criminals attack.

"Seconds can mean the difference between defending and losing the lives of our citizens," said Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, a Frederick County Republican.

Opposition to the bill came from a coalition of Republicans and rural Democrats. Two of the House's 35 GOP delegates -- Jean B. Cryor and Richard La Vay of Montgomery County -- voted in favor of the bill. Democrats split 81-24 in favor.

Last night's vote is a significant setback for the National Rifle Association, which ran ads ridiculing Glendening in a last-ditch attempt to derail the bill. For the governor, passage of the bill is a notable personal and political success, achieved despite formidable odds and with more than a little luck.

Futuristic devices

When Glendening proposed gun-safety legislation last summer, the initiative was met with considerable skepticism. His proposal focused on futuristic devices that would personalize guns so that nobody but an authorized user could fire them.

Opponents objected that such "smart guns" -- using technologies such as radio waves or fingerprint identification -- did not exist and might not for many years. Nevertheless, the original legislation would have required all new handguns to have such technology as early as 2003.

After the legislation was introduced in January, it sat in both houses with no significant action for two months. The House declined to act until the Senate did. In the Senate, the bill was trapped in the conservative Judicial Proceedings Committee. By mid-March, the bill appeared doomed to defeat in that committee.

But last month, Smith & Wesson entered into a legal settlement with the Clinton administration in which it pledged to equip its handguns with safety features on a schedule similar to the one proposed in the governor's bill.

Most important, the gun manufacturer promised to put built-in locks in all of its handguns by 2002. That focused attention on a similar requirement in the Glendening bill.

The Smith & Wesson agreement helped change the position of Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who previously had opposed the provision for built-in locks. He forged a compromise that required such locks by 2003 and reduced the "smart-guns" provision to an annual report to the governor and General Assembly by a state board.

Then Miller invoked a rarely used rule to bypass Judicial Proceedings and bring the measure to the Senate floor, where it passed 26-21 early last week after he rounded up the votes to avert a filibuster.

Risk avoided

The result was so close that supporters of the bill decided not to risk amending it in the House, which would have sent the legislation back to the Senate.

The gun-safety bill survived a key vote Friday night in the House Judiciary Committee. Some liberal members expressed reservations about provisions imposing five-year mandatory minimum sentences on previously convicted felons caught with guns, and others questioned a section barring juvenile delinquents from owning firearms until age 30.

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