Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) set the stage for another battle over gun control yesterday by reviving his on-again, off-again proposal to require that all new handguns sold in the state be equipped with "childproof" locks.
With gun-control politics changing drastically since the Littleton, Colo., school massacre in April, Glendening established a 21-member task force and ordered it to draft legislation mandating that all new handguns in Maryland include some type of internal safety lock that would prevent them from being fired by children, thieves or other unauthorized users.
The task force, led by Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, is charged with reviewing a variety of gun-safety measures, from simple mechanical combination locks to "smart gun" technology. Smart guns rely on fingerprint sensors, radio transponders and other high-tech devices to keep anyone except the owner from firing the weapon.
High-tech smart guns are not available on the open market, however, and most gun manufacturers argue that the technology is unproved and economically unfeasible. They and other critics paint smart-gun legislation as a backhanded way to restrict handgun sales.
"What's really going on is that Glendening wants to ban handguns, and he wants to accomplish this by requiring that they be sold with a technology that does not exist," said Bob McMurray, chairman of the Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban. "The Colorado incident is a convenient excuse."
Although no state has adopted smart-gun measures, the idea is gaining currency among gun-control advocates as a way to pressure manufacturers to find new ways to improve the safety of their product, much as automakers were pushed to install air bags. Last month, a New Jersey Senate committee approved a bill that would require all handguns sold in that state to include smart-gun features within five years.
While campaigning for reelection in September, Glendening promised to introduce such legislation, then backed away. He dropped the idea before the General Assembly convened in January, saying he needed another year to marshal support among lawmakers.
Since the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, gun control has taken center stage in Congress and in several state legislatures. In Maryland, which already has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the country, some lawmakers say the time is ripe to push additional restrictions, perhaps even beyond what Glendening is proposing.
"There has been a sea change in the politics of gun control," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), chairman of a House subcommittee on public safety. "The proposal that goes to the legislature should be very aggressive. . . . There's now a lot more potential for broad action in Annapolis than anybody thought."
Other gun-control advocates, while supportive of Glendening's proposal, said they are still disappointed that he dropped his campaign promise to push for legislation in 1999.
"It's just a shame that we lost a year on this," said Del. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), a former congressional lobbyist for Handgun Control Inc. "Now they're following public sentiment rather than leading."
But gun-safety legislation will face opposition, notably from Beretta USA Corp., which is based in Accokeek and which owns two gun manufacturing plants in Southern Maryland that employ more than 2,500 people. Beretta officials have sharply criticized calls to mandate smart-gun technology.
In an open letter to supporters dated Dec. 10, Beretta general counsel Jeffrey K. Reh announced that the company had established a political action committee in Maryland to fight the gun-safety measure that Glendening proposed during the campaign. Reh said Beretta had given the PAC $10,000 -- the maximum contribution allowable by law in a four-year election cycle -- and was actively seeking donations from supporters.
"Simply put, smart-gun technology does not exist," Reh wrote. "It has not been established on a mass-production basis. It has not been tested in real-life conditions. It is expensive and could require that the manufacturer program each firearm to the individual who intends to use it, which would virtually halt gun sales."