Nearly a quarter-million cable-style gun locks have been arriving on the doorsteps of law enforcement agencies across Maryland in recent weeks as part of a nationwide, federally funded effort to hand out 20 million of the free safety devices to gun owners.
More than 80 Maryland law enforcement agencies are participating in Project ChildSafe. But at least two large police departments -- Baltimore County and Howard County -- have opted out, noting liability concerns. Gun activists also question the use of public monies for such a program.
FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly characterized the position of gun control activists toward a national program to distribute free gun locks. They do not oppose the use of public money for the gun locks but believe it would be better for gun manufacturers to build the locks into their firearms.
The Sun regrets the error.
Those taking part say the purpose of the program, which is sending more than 220,000 of the locks statewide, outweighs legal worries.
"If [the department] has 1,800 of these things over there and one of them prevents a child from dying, that's good enough for me," said Howard Sheriff Charles M. Cave, whose office has agreed to distribute the locks and has held a giveaway at the Ellicott City Wal-Mart.
The locks came courtesy of Project ChildSafe, a program administered by the Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry's trade association, and mostly funded by a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The trade association began sponsoring gun lock giveaways in 1999 in five pilot cities. It has vastly expanded since George W. Bush, a proponent during his days as governor of Texas, was elected president, Project ChildSafe officials said.
In Maryland -- where a state law that took effect last year requires any gun sold here to come with an internal safety lock -- the program has sent the devices from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, dropping 2,500 at the Anne Arundel Sheriff's Department, another 5,000 with the Anne Arundel Police Department and 50,000 for Baltimore City police.
And while most sheriff's offices and police departments are trying to figure out how to distribute the locks, officials say they were happy to join an effort they believe will help better protect children in their homes.
"Obviously, it's a beneficial program and, hopefully, this can save the life of a child down the line," said Lt. Jason Little, commander of the Anne Arundel police community relations section.
Despite the wide net cast by the program in recent weeks, Baltimore and Howard county police officials say they evaluated the giveaways and decided it would be better to steer clear. Both counties also rejected the giveaways three years ago, about the time the program, then called Project HomeSafe, agreed to recall and replace 400,000 defective locks that could be popped open without a key.
This week, both departments said their decision not to participate came down to an issue of quality control.
"Unless we can be 100 percent sure of the effectiveness of any product ... then we simply can't distribute it," said Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. "This was simply one of the many calls the chief had to decide."
Baltimore County Sheriff R. Jay Fisher, whose office plans to distribute 3,000 locks, said he was reassured by the participation of the Justice Department.
"They don't do anything unless it's 110 percent," he said.
Activists say the distribution of gun safety locks transcends the politics of gun control. But officials with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which represents cities in lawsuits against gun manufacturers and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, question the trade association's motives.
"This is not a serious effort at making families safer, but to enhance their image in light of past conduct," said Dennis A. Henigan, the Brady Center's legal director. "... There are many ways to spend public monies, and this isn't necessarily a bad way to do it. But the real issue here is why doesn't the gun industry, instead of passing out child safety locks, build [locks] in the design of the gun?"
But Bill Brassard, the director of Project ChildSafe, said an internal lock, like an external one, is only effective if the person uses it. The free locks work by threading a cable through the gun's action component, thereby preventing the weapon from being loaded or fired. In many cases, the firearm must be unloaded to attach the lock, Brassard said.
"The industry has a long history of providing safety messages to firearms owners," he said. "It's in the best interests of all gun owners to follow safety precautions."
With the locks in hand, law enforcement officials said they are looking at ways to disperse their take -- from distributing them at gun safety classes to setting up a table at a spring fair to giving them to people who visit their stations.
Eight giveaway events have occurred in the state, including the Howard sheriff's Wal-Mart handout Jan. 2 and two by the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store at Arundel Mills Mall.
Early giveaways have been successful, officials say. At the Bass Pro Shops, 3,800 locks were given away in six hours Dec. 29 and about 700 or 800 more at an event Monday, said Allan Ellis, the promotions manager for the store.