Governor seeks body armor ban

Proposal sparked by city case in which officer was killed

A top legislative priority

Glendening outlines expected $20 billion budget for next year

January 10, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will ask the General Assembly to restrict the sale and possession of body armor in Maryland, a decision aides said was influenced by the case of an 18-year-old accused of killing a Baltimore police officer while wearing a bullet-resistant vest.

Glendening, who last year won passage of a sweeping gun safety measure that requires trigger locks, declared the body armor prohibition a top priority for the annual legislative session that begins today.

The governor released details of the ban - exceptions would be made for law enforcement and security personnel - in meetings with reporters and legislative leaders who began arriving for the 90-day session.

Glendening outlined his expected $20 billion budget for next year, which he said will include major increases in funding for mass transit, state colleges, public schools and Smart Growth projects. Although many of those details were disclosed previously, he also announced plans for a five-year, $145 million GreenPrint program to preserve land threatened by sprawl.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. released House Democrats' ambitious agenda for the session, with a heavy emphasis on health and education.

One of the bills would expand a state insurance program to cover an additional 60,000 low-income workers. The bill would extend eligibility for coverage from 46 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent and eventually 150 percent. The poverty level is $17,050 for a family of four.

Taylor said the bill would be an incremental step toward universal health coverage. "Given the affluence that's in our overall economy today, this is a very opportune time to take this step," he said.

Glendening hasn't seen the proposal and would need to study its coverage plans and cost before commenting, said spokesman Michael Morrill.

The House leadership is also supporting an initiative to provide prescription drug benefits to 200,000 Medicaid clients who now lack coverage.

Bills included in the House leadership package generally have good prospects in that chamber because they have the speaker's backing. Their inclusion does not necessarily mean they will be well-received in the Senate or that they will be supported by the governor.

While Glendening had tipped his hand on most of his budgetary proposals, the body armor initiative is new. It came as testimony began in the trial of Eric Darcel Stennett, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Officer Kevon Gavin. Stennett is accused of deliberately striking Gavin's cruiser during a chase. Stennett was wearing body armor when he was pulled from his car, police said.

The case was noted by the City Council when it gave final approval last spring to a measure prohibiting the sale of body armor to minors.

Aides said Glendening was influenced by the case, too. The governor, hoisting a police detective's black vest at a State House press conference, said he also was influenced by accounts of the fatal shooting in 1994 of a San Francisco officer by a man wearing body armor who was shooting wildly at pedestrians and police. He held off 120 officers for 32 minutes before being shot to death by police.

The vest the governor used as his prop was once worn by police Detective David Azur, a member of a regional car theft investigative team who appeared with Glendening at the news conference. In July, Azur was shot in the chest at close range on West North Avenue while wearing it, sustaining a softball-sized bruise.

"Were he not wearing it, he would not be with us today," Glendening said. "Now, when a criminal puts on this same armor, what you find is that they feel emboldened. Young people feel invincible.

The vests can cost anywhere from $400 to $1,400.

Some police advocates said they have been pushing the restrictions for years and wondered what took Glendening so long. Others said privately they feared retailers or gun-rights groups could try to derail the measure. The National Rifle Association doesn't plan to take a position on the bill, said spokesman Bill Powers.

"We asked for this legislation back in 1996. It's too late for some people," said Gary McLhinney, president of Baltimore's police union.

Glendening aides said he was preoccupied last year with the hotly debated gun safety bill. They said the timing of the measure also stemmed from informal conversations he has had recently with officers.

Legislators were learning the details yesterday about some of the governor's proposals. Much of their reaction focused on the budget and whether it would be too ambitious in what many regard as uncertain economic times. While numbers for some spending programs are trickling out, the full budget won't be available until next week.

One proposal drawing scrutiny is Glendening's plan to transfer $82 million a year from the general fund into the transportation trust fund for a $750 million program of mass transit improvements.

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