Gun manufacturers and enthusiasts tried yesterday to head off a showdown in Maryland over safety technology by telling a state task force that the specialized guns Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to mandate remain too experimental for mass production.
Glendening (D) has vowed to champion legislation next year that would require that "smart guns" be the only type of handguns sold in the state. The guns would be fitted with technology that would permit them to be fired only by their owners, and the proposal already is shaping up to become the most controversial issue in the next General Assembly session.
A longtime proponent of gun control, the governor is pushing to make Maryland a national leader on the new technology. He has compared the effort to the push for air bags in cars, which came about only after government imposed new regulations on the auto industry.
But representatives of Beretta USA Corp., the only gun manufacturer based in the state, and several gun enthusiast groups said that such a requirement would put gun dealers out of business and give gun owners a false sense of security, and that it simply wasn't feasible yet. They told a panel Glendening has created to draft smart gun legislation that the technology is unproved.
Prince George's County-based Beretta USA, whose guns are sold to the U.S. military and many police departments, has been researching possible designs, said Gabriele de Plano, the company's product manager. But, he said at the hearing in the State House in Annapolis, "we have not found some of these technologies to be conceptually sound."
The governor has told his task force that its job is not to determine whether legislation is needed but how it should be written. Several types of smart gun technology are on the horizon. Prototypes, for instance, have been developed of guns that read an owner's fingerprints before they can be fired. Other specialized weapons require an owner to wear a special ring to enable the gun to fire.
But Sanford M. Abrams, of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, said: "The Wright brothers had a prototype--it flew 300 yards. How long does it take to develop?" He told the task force yesterday that it could be a decade before gun buyers see such weapons on the market.
Colt, the Connecticut-based gun manufacturer, has said it is close to developing smart guns. Company representatives didn't testify yesterday but plan to meet soon with Maryland officials.
"We're at the grass-roots level of building a model that the rest of the country can look at," said the state police superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell, who heads Glendening's task force.
While yesterday's hearing was to hear from those opposed to new mandatory legislation, Mitchell said, "what I didn't hear was anybody who was opposed to making guns safe."
Beretta's representatives were challenged by some task force members about why the company hadn't invested more on technological research. And it seemed clear from the tone of the questions from the group yesterday that some sort of mandatory legislation would be proposed.
"I think they got the message they've got to try harder," Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery) said of the gun industry representatives. Forehand is a member of the task force and serves on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will consider the legislation. "It's a doable thing."