Advisers to Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday recommended that within two years built-in mechanical locks be required on all handguns sold in Maryland and that more sophisticated devices limiting gun use to their owners be mandated once the technology is developed.
The preliminary recommendation would make Maryland the first state in the nation to impose such a mandate. But in making its preliminary recommendations, the panel conceded that "smart-gun" technology--which might use fingerprint matching to prevent anyone but a gun's owner from firing it--is years away from the marketplace.
Until smart-gun technology is in place, the state should go ahead and mandate other built-in locks that require someone to punch in a personal identification number before a weapon can be fired, according to members of a task force appointed by Glendening to study the issue.
Glendening's 21-member task force is scheduled to vote on the preliminary recommendation by the end of the month. Its decision then will form the basis for legislation Glendening (D) has said he will propose in the General Assembly in January.
The task force chairman, State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, said a technology subcommittee has concluded that electronic smart-gun technology probably won't be ready for mass production before 2005. But he said setting mandated time lines now will spur gunmakers to get to work on new designs and make Maryland a leader in a campaign to reduce gun violence.
"What happens here is going to happen in a lot of places," Mitchell said.
Executives from Beretta USA Corp., the only Maryland-based gun manufacturer, have testified to the task force that the technology is nowhere close to being marketable. Representatives from Colt's Manufacturing, the Connecticut gunmaker, said they are pushing hard for a new smart-gun design and hope to have it for sale within four years.
In the interim, members of the technology subcommittee recommended that new handguns sold in Maryland after Jan. 1, 2002, be equipped with mechanical locks. The built-in locks would provide a more permanent safety measure than trigger locks, which are separate devices made to lock onto handguns and which are now mandated in four states. But they fall short of smart-gun technology because the built-in locks still can be deactivated so that users can effectively leave their weapons unlocked.
A spokesman for Glendening said the governor probably would approve of the integrated lock proposal as long as it was only an interim step. "Mechanical locks are clearly not the best we can do," Michael Morrill said. "In the end, we want to make sure guns are safe all the time."
Still, mandating integrated locks is a new idea. "No one else has done it like that," said Joseph P. Sudbay, who tracks legislation across the country for Handgun Control Inc.
Frank Brooks, chairman of Saf T Lok, a Florida-based maker of integrated locks, said thousands of gun owners use them as do several major police departments, including Boston and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
Since the end of the summer, the task force has been hearing from gunmakers, gun rights advocates, gun control proponents and others. In naming the members, who include some of Maryland's most prominent gun control advocates, Glendening said he didn't want them to debate the need for new ways to make handguns safer but to study the best technology available and report back.
The group's makeup has prompted a backlash from gun rights supporters, who have denounced the task force at a series of five public hearings, including the final one in College Park on Monday evening. "I wish I could say something that would matter to you, but I'm looking at a stacked deck," said Beth Caherty, a Takoma Park gun owner who spoke at the hearing.
Some gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have said they would be willing to work with the Maryland task force on promoting safe gun technology but will resist efforts to mandate it.