Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared yesterday that gun manufacturers' claims that they cannot make a childproof handgun were "nonsense" and told Maryland legislators that "we can make them do it."
In some of his sharpest language on the subject yet, Glendening (D) dismissed gunmakers' claims that the technology is not yet reliable or affordable to make guns so that they can be fired only by authorized users.
"Absolute nonsense," Glendening told legislators during his State of the State address. "Whether it is air bags or childproof aspirin bottles, we know the industry will not do what is right until we make them do what is right. And we can make them do it."
Glendening's comments brought applause from many of the 188 lawmakers and other state officials in the House chambers at the State House in Annapolis. They were easily his most passionate during a 40-minute speech in which he called on legislators to use the state's newfound wealth to make long-term investments in education and health programs.
Taking advantage of a projected $940 million surplus, Glendening said he wants to put telephones in every classroom to give teachers a way to call parents or security personnel, and to continue a "golden age of school construction" that is providing classrooms for students in kindergarten through college.
He also has proposed spending $100 million of the state's initial payments from the national settlement with the tobacco industry on cancer research and smoking cessation. Some of the money will help Southern Maryland tobacco farmers convert to new crops to "close the book on Maryland's history as a tobacco state," he said.
The governor also seeks a $24 million package to attract and retain teachers. Maryland will need 11,000 new teachers next year, and state colleges will graduate only 2,500, with half of them expected to seek work elsewhere. In his speech, Glendening urged local school districts to increase teacher salaries, noting that recent increases in state education aid have not resulted in pay boosts.
"We must come together and help our teachers with a family-supporting, professional salary," he said.
In addition, Glendening said the state has "an obligation to do the right thing" for those who build schools. He is seeking legislation to require that union-level prevailing wages be paid to school construction workers as is now required on virtually all other state building projects. Republican legislators said the plan would raise school building costs by as much as 15 percent, but Glendening said studies have shown it should not affect spending.
With a rosy financial picture at the dawn of a new millennium, Glendening used his annual speech to outline his vision for Maryland's future, one where state residents eventually may be able to go to college for free, where open space has been preserved and where bigotry and discrimination have been thwarted.
He offered no specifics for how to reach those goals. But Glendening said he had laid the foundation: His scholarship program, which is expanding this year, gives aid to students in high technology and teaching; he has spent millions of dollars to preserve more than 185,000 acres; and he has pushed measures to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, which last year stalled in the Senate.
"We can take great pride knowing that as the final chapter is written on Maryland's 20th century, it will be clear that our priorities were correct: We strengthened our economy. We focused on our schools. We made our communities safer. And we protected and preserved our environment," Glendening said.
The governor's focus on safety this year is his proposal to eventually require that only childproof handguns be sold in Maryland. So-called smart guns use sophisticated technology that unlocks a handgun to enable it to fire. One design uses a fingerprint scanner. Another requires an authorized shooter to wear a radio transmitter, in a bracelet or ring, that sends a signal unlocking the gun. While prototypes of both designs have been tested, critics of Glendening's proposal say the technology is still far from reliable.
His effort has mobilized opposition from gun advocates including the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers, including Beretta USA, Maryland's only major gunmaker.
"We can tell the NRA and the gun manufacturers that Maryland is setting the agenda now. We can tell them that we are putting our children's lives ahead of their profits," Glendening said.
In an interview, Beretta's general counsel, Jeff Reh, called the governor's comments unfair and said his company had been researching technology on internal locks for handguns. "As gun manufacturers, we're in the best position to determine what's safe and what's not," he said.
He said the company was concerned that if customers believed the guns were childproof and the new technology failed, more accidents could occur. "We don't want to do something with firearms that makes them more dangerous," Reh said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), whose district includes Beretta's headquarters, said that he expected some sort of new gun lock requirement to become law but that some of the new technology being considered was too futuristic. "We can look at it, but we can't mandate it," he said.
Still, he and other legislators praised Glendening's speech, echoing the governor's optimism in these good economic times.
"His stock went up today," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's). "Over the years, it never ceases to amaze me how far along he's come."
But Republicans complained that other than eliminating the inheritance tax, Glendening is doing nothing for tax relief. Glendening has proposed keeping nearly half the $940 million surplus in reserve as a hedge against an economic downturn, resisting calls from Democratic and Republican legislative leaders to accelerate an already approved 10 percent income tax cut.
"If there's anything this surplus tells us, it's that we've overtaxed our citizens," said House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard). "There are plenty of people still struggling, and I don't know why we are not going to cut taxes, and make it easier for them to survive."