A gun-control advocacy group is complaining that a crucial provision in the state's five-year-old gun safety act has been gutted over the past year by a state board that regulates the sale of handguns.
But a top representative of the Maryland Handgun Roster Board countered that it has followed the law and based its decisions on expert opinions.
With the Responsible Gun Control Act of 2000, Maryland became the first state to require manufacturers to move toward selling handguns with gun locks integrated into the design in order to prevent accidental deaths.
Gun-control advocates claim the roster board's decision-making over the past few years increasingly reflects a slant toward gun-rights interests that has effectively eroded the law through a relaxed interpretation.
The law defines the locks as "integrated mechanical safety devices" that are "built into a handgun."
The authority to interpret the law rests with the 11-member board. The board consists of two law enforcement representatives, a state prosecutor, a National Rifle Association representative, a gun industry member, two engineers, a gun-control advocate and three citizen members.
Leah Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, a gun-control advocacy group, said that the board has become ineffective.
"They have a very definite economic interest in watering down the law," Barrett said. "We don't have an economic interest in this."
Debating gun locks
The board declined recently to review a decision made last year allowing a gun lock that gun-control advocates say should be restricted under the law.
During the meeting this past week, the board approved another similar device, as well as two small handguns that gun-control advocates say are too easily concealed.
Gun-rights advocates, dealers and manufacturers criticized the integrated lock requirement from the law's inception in 2000, saying it was impractical, unnecessary and difficult to implement.
Robert Biemiller, who attends the board meetings as the designee for Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, the state police superintendent, said the integrated locks that the board has approved satisfy the law's requirements.
Biemiller said that the engineers who sit on the board determined that two of the locks criticized by CeaseFire do become an integrated feature of the gun once they are properly installed.
"The majority of the board determined that these things do get built into the gun," said Biemiller, who directs the state police's office of strategic planning. "You'd have to go to a gunsmith to get it out [without a key]. To take it out any other way would destroy the weapon."
But Grace Huber, a member of the board allied with CeaseFire, said she voted against the locks - known as the Omega and the Interbore - because their design was contrary to what she believed the law had intended.
The board has approved approximately 20 locks as "integrated mechanical safety devices," but gun-control advocates have singled out the Omega and Interbore models because they consider them to be external devices.
"It's gotten to the point that a gunsmith could put any type of lock in it," said Huber. "I don't think this was the intent of the law when it was passed. Any gun lock you put in can be taken out."
The 2000 law was meant to curtail accidental gun deaths involving young children, and the board should interpret it based on its legislative intent, gun-control advocates say.
But the board has the ultimate authority in assessing whether particular handguns and safety technologies satisfy Maryland's gun laws, according to a 2002 opinion by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
"The roster board went to the attorney general for a definition, and [he] responded it was up to the roster board to define - and that's what they have done," said John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, which advocates for the right to bear arms. "They are merely following the law."
Gun-rights advocates "would argue that [the Omega and Interbore models] are an internal lock," said Barrett, CeaseFire's executive director. "Yes, when it's actually in the gun, but it's not integrated. It's not built into the design of the gun."
Biemiller said about 1,400 different handguns can be sold legally in Maryland. He estimated that fewer than one in 10 handguns brought for review before the board get rejected.
Barrett criticized the board for approving two guns this week that had 2-inch-long barrels, saying they are too easy to conceal.
But Biemiller said the board considers other factors, in addition to how concealable it is, before approving a handgun.
According to a 1988 state law that targeted cheap, poorly designed handguns known as "Saturday night specials," the board must consider, before approval, how concealable the gun is, its ballistic accuracy, its weight, quality of materials and manufacture, reliability and caliber.
The law does not set specific parameters for each category.
Legislators created the roster board to review the guns and to weed out cheap inferior ones that were easily obtained by criminals.
Biemiller said that under the law, the ease of concealment is only one of several factors the board considers in approving a gun.
"It's not intended to restrict a quality firearm strictly because of size," Biemiller said of the earlier law. "Saturday night specials were cheap, inferior products."