A Maryland Republican group's bid to raffle off a 9mm pistol to show support for gun owners has state party leaders squirming, many of whom view it as inappropriate.

The Carroll County Republican Central Committee began selling $5 raffle tickets this week for a chance to win a Beretta 9mm pistol and a copy of the book "More Guns, Less Crime," written by a University of Chicago researcher who says that crime would be reduced nationally if more citizens owned guns.

Scott Hollenbeck, a member of the Central Committee, said the winner of what he called a "nice-looking weapon" would be announced at either the committee's January meeting or during the annual Carroll County legislative delegation breakfast in Annapolis.

While intended to be a fund-raiser, the raffle "also makes the statement on where the Carroll County Central Committee stands [in] . . . reaching out to Second Amendment enthusiasts," Hollenbeck said. Republicans, he said, want gun enthusiasts to know "you have a home at the Carroll County Republican Party."

The raffle comes at a time when gun control has moved to the top of the General Assembly's agenda, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) planning to champion new gun lock requirements in the upcoming legislative session.

But the Carroll County raffle has left many state Republican officials chagrined. The Central Committee is the party's official governing organization in the central Maryland county. Some urged committee members to reconsider.

"It's evidence of very poor judgment," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., considered among the leading contenders for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 2002. "I think it's wrong. There are far better things to raffle off. What happened to to cakes or pies? What about a computer?"

Maryland GOP Chairman Richard Bennett is traveling out of the country, but Vice Chairman Michael Steele blasted the decision. "If the purpose is to show support for the Second Amendment, I think there's another way to do that. I don't have to raffle off a gun. People will view it as insensitive and wrong-headed."

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (R-Montgomery) agreed: "Although I believe in the Second Amendment, I think it's an inappropriate item to raffle off. I don't think we should be promoting guns."

On Monday, a state task force studying ways to make handguns safer recommended that beginning in 2002, all handguns sold in Maryland be equipped with built-in, mechanical locks.

Glendening plans to introduce gun lock legislation in January to help curb gun violence. Yesterday, his spokesman, Michael Morrill, said the Carroll County gun raffle "is so extreme that it can only show that the governor is taking reasonable steps to control gun violence and the opponents are outside the mainstream."

Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson (R-Carroll), a gun rights advocate, defended the raffle. He said that as a teenager in the 1960s and 1970s, he used to attend turkey shoots that were Democratic fund-raisers in Baltimore County.

"If it was okay for the Democratic Party back then, why is it wrong now?" he said. "The Second Amendment hasn't changed. It's just a way of making money. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

A state police spokesman said the winner of the raffle would have to pass a background check before getting the pistol.

CAPTION: "I think it's wrong," Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says of the raffle.