New gun law caught in cross fire between dealers and supporters

Foes plan quick challenge of internal lock restriction

January 01, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Starting today, gun buyers and dealers in Maryland will face a restriction not shared by their counterparts anywhere else in the country: a ban on the sale of newly made handguns that lack internal safety locks.

The first-in-the-nation law that goes into effect today was part of a major gun safety package passed in 2000 at the urging of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Aimed at reducing accidental shootings - especially those involving children - it was hailed by backers as a huge victory for gun safety.

But as the law debuts three years later, it is mired in confusion about its practical application and caught in a cross fire between gun dealers and gun control advocates that could stall its implementation.

Opponents of the law, including gun dealers who say it threatens their livelihood, are planning to challenge the ban in court. They also hope the ban could be delayed or weakened by Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has been less supportive of gun control measures than Glendening.

During the campaign, Ehrlich pledged that he would review the state's gun laws to determine their worth - a statement that caused an uproar among gun control supporters.

"The bottom line is we will take a look at this law and every law pertaining to the sale of handguns to see if it works, its level of effectiveness," Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said this week.

Ehrlich "was lambasted when he said `review,' but a review of the laws on the books is long overdue," she said.

Unfazed by potential challenges, gun safety advocates around the country are closely watching Maryland to see if the ban helps pressure gun makers to design new safety devices.

"It's still as big a step as we thought it was a few years ago," said Chad Ramsey, Eastern regional director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington. "It will take a while before its impact shows, but it's clearly a step in the direction of safety."

Under the law, the only newly made handguns Maryland dealers can sell are those with internal, or "integrated," locking mechanisms - a feature that dealers say is found on about 25 percent of handguns on the market, typically pricier models. Before today, handgun buyers only had to buy separate, external locks that can be clamped onto the trigger.

Amid much confusion among dealers and state police about what models qualify under the law, the state's Handgun Roster Board ruled in September that gun buyers can buy new handguns without internal locks if they pay the dealer to retrofit the gun with an integrated lock. But this doesn't work with all guns, and some dealers are wary of retrofitting guns for fear of exposing themselves to liability.

Dealers will be able to sell used and new handguns without internal locks manufactured before 2003, which has led them to stockpile as many as possible. But they say they will soon run through those supplies and will be able to offer customers (who under federal law can't cross state lines to buy guns) only a fraction of new handguns on the market, slashing their sales.

"There are firearms models that aren't going to be available, simple as that," said Sanford Abrams, owner of Valley Gun in Parkville and vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association. "It could be devastating. ... Call me back next year when I'm `Valley Pizza Parlor.'"

Dealers also decry what they see as the law's ineffectiveness. An argument made for internal locks in 2000 was that they would be more convenient than external locks, and thus more likely to be used by gun owners.

But dealers argue that guns with internal locks carry a risk of their own. Unlike guns with external locks, it is often difficult to tell if they're locked simply by looking at them, without testing the trigger or lock. As a result, someone could accidentally fire a gun that was assumed locked.

In addition, dealers predict that because the internal locks - typically, combinations or tiny keyholes matched to small screws - can be tricky to open in a hurry, many owners are likely to leave them unlocked, so they don't have to fiddle with them if they are in danger.

"For me, the decision is going to be to leave it unlocked," Abrams said. "A locked gun can't defend me. At 3 a.m., I'm not going to find that little hole with that little key."

As for the claim that the law will force companies to make guns with internal locks, dealers say the Maryland market is too small to have that sway. More likely, they say, distributors will simply avoid the state.

The real motivation for the law, gun dealers argue, was not to reduce accidental shootings but to reduce handgun sales by limiting the list of legal models.

Internal locks "are no different than [external] trigger locks. You can either turn them on or not. That why it's so stupid," said John Schelin, owner of Schelin Guns in College Park. "That's why this is aimed at causing hardship rather than doing something beneficial."

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