Colt, the venerable firearms maker, told Maryland officials yesterday that it hoped to market handguns equipped with sophisticated new safety devices within four years but said it does not support Gov. Parris N. Glendening's efforts to mandate the technology.
Too much research remains to be done, Andrew J. Brignoli, Colt's Manufacturing Co. vice president, told a special commission that Glendening (D) has asked to draft legislation requiring safety mechanisms on all handguns in Maryland.
"No technology exists in a form that has been proven to be safe," Brignoli said. "We cannot support any effort to mandate this technology."
Still, Colt has split with other major gun makers, such as Prince George's County-based Beretta USA, by actively researching such wizardry as fingerprint-activated guns and guns that require the shooter to be wearing a ring that emits radio signals.
Such progress was enough for the governor's commission to say mandates may be reasonable.
"What I didn't hear is: This is out of the question, it can't happen," said the commission's chairman, State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell. "Is it responsible for us to go in this direction [eventually requiring the new technology on guns sold in Maryland]? I think it is."
With debate over gun violence increasing throughout the nation, Glendening has vowed to push for new safety devices on all handguns sold in the state.
The gubernatorial commission's job is not to decide whether such technology is necessary but to determine what form it should take and how quickly it can be mandated. With opponents such as the National Rifle Association, which supports the technology but bridles at a mandate, the proposal is shaping up to be one of the most contentious issues in the upcoming General Assembly session.
Administration officials said the growing number of lawsuits filed by communities against gun makers in recent months is helping their cause.
Although a judge in Cincinnati yesterday threw out that city's suit, Colt is among several gun manufacturers that industry sources said met last summer with New York's attorney general to discuss concessions they could make to avoid litigation.
Brignoli said yesterday that any legislative mandate in Maryland would not accelerate the research Colt is doing. He said the company would be reluctant to market any gun that it had not adequately tested.
Colt, based in Connecticut, has developed three prototypes of what are being called "smartguns." It has concentrated on the radio signal devices for its police models. But two of the prototypes already have malfunctioned during testing, after being fired several hundred times. Adequate testing would require test firing thousands of rounds, Brignoli said.
The company received a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice and has made what Brignoli called a substantial investment in research. In the past month, it has spun off a new company, iColt, that will focus on the new weaponry.
Brignoli said Maryland and the federal government could help most by providing more research money.
But one commission member, Neil A. Meyerhoff, president of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, said he was concerned that Brignoli made no promise that any financial help would speed up the research. He remained in favor of tough requirements for the new technology: "If we mandate it, it will accelerate it."
Several commission members acknowledged that any legislation likely would have a tough time in the General Assembly. The gun lobby is powerful and can rally many rural legislators to its cause. Also, they said, a muddled message on how feasible the technology is will make many lawmakers reluctant to vote for it.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, who serves on the governor's commission, said any new mandates could be phased in over time.
New locking mechanisms that require a number code to be punched into a small keypad on a pistol or revolver are ready now and could be a starting place, he said. More sophisticated electronic technology could come in later years. Gansler said he favored putting some deadline in the legislation to force gun makers to get to work on the new technology.
Del. Ann Marie Doory (D-Baltimore) who serves on the commission, agreed.
"I have no illusions to solving this problem overnight," she said. "This is for future generations so that people who want to own guns are safe."