Some in state resisting free gun lock program

Balto., Howard counties note liability concerns over industry giveaway

MTA, Fort Meade participating

January 28, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A gun industry program to distribute free gun locks to prevent accidental or impulsive shootings has caught on nationally, but not throughout Maryland.

The state's Mass Transit Administration police and the provost marshal at Fort Meade have agreed to give out the locks, and Harford County officials are interested, but Howard and Baltimore counties have declined.

Unlike many other issues involving guns, this one appears largely apolitical. Brian Morton, spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., a gun-control group based in Washington, had faint praise for the program, which is sponsored by the National Sports Shooting Foundation, a gun industry trade group.

"Giving away gun locks is a nice thing, but it's really half the battle," Morton said. His group prefers guns with locks built in by the manufacturer, as a groundbreaking Maryland law requires, and he urged the gun industry to back that effort.

The $2 million gun lock giveaway program, financed by gun and ammunition manufacturers, has become popular from Maine to Texas since its inception in October 1999.

But Howard officials said liability issues, in the event a lock fails to work, have discouraged their participation in the program, despite the determined efforts of a Fort Meade Army major and Howard resident, Douglas A. Dribben.

Baltimore County police have also refused to participate, said spokesman Bill Toohey, partly because of liability concerns, and because of a design problem that program organizers say has been corrected.

Dribben, a Woodstock resident, said he became interested in gun locks after an Army buddy working for a gun manufacturer talked to him about it.

"I thought it was a good idea to have gun safety," he said, adding that "I don't give up easily. It's important."

At least one police official in Maryland agrees.

"We're trying to keep children alive by preventing accidental discharge" of guns, said Christopher Holland, commander of special operations for MTA police.

With an average ridership of more than 355,000 people a day on buses, light rail, Metro and commuter trains, "we get an awful lot of people we could reach out to," Holland said.

Col. Douglas DeLeaver, MTA police chief, saw a display for the gun lock giveaway program at a police convention last year, Holland said, and "was impressed."

Officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., have no worries about liability, said L. Diana Cunningham, executive director of that county's Criminal Justice Commission.

A coalition of law enforcement, health and business agencies is deeply involved in a gun safety educational campaign that uses free gun lock giveaways as a centerpiece and drawing point for the public, she said.

"I think it's excellent, I really do," Cunningham said. Police officers carry the locks in their cars and give them out at crime scenes. Pediatricians and hospitals are also helping.

"The program has caught on like wildfire," said Bill Brassard Jr., coordinator for Connecticut-based Project Home Safe, a program of the National Sports Shooting Foundation, a 40-year-old nonprofit trade organization representing 1,800 gun manufacturers, retailers and distributors.

As for the liability risk, Brassard said, "The public safety benefit outweighs the very small risk of an accident."

A new, stronger version of the lock -- which works by threading a steel cable through the gun barrel or magazine and locking the ends together, rendering the weapon inoperable -- won't be ready for several months. Initially, each agency distributing the locks can get up to 5,000, Brassard said.

Distribution of the locks was halted in October after the original version was found susceptible to being forced open.

The 400,000 locks that have been distributed can be exchanged for new, better ones, Brassard said, though the mechanics of the exchange are being set up.

The Harford County sheriff's office likes the gun lock concept, but it has not received enough information to make a decision about taking part, said spokesman Lt. Edward Hopkins.

Despite months of prodding, Howard County officials have adamantly refused to participate, after expressing early interest.

"The county is not interested in doing this program," said Howard County Solicitor Barbara Cook, who said she is worried about possible liability if one of the locks malfunctions.

Dribben hopes to interest another agency in participating in the program.

"I'm very frustrated. Somebody's afraid of a possible minimal exposure. It [the program] brings a lot of safety to people," Dribben said.

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