Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to require that guns be sold with built-in locks and, eventually, more sophisticated safety equipment has moved gun control to the front of the state's legislative agenda this year, prompting a flurry of bills from both sides of the debate.
With the General Assembly meeting for the first time since the slayings at Columbine High School in Colorado and highly publicized shootings elsewhere, Glendening's so-called smart-gun plan dominates the agenda. In legislation formally introduced yesterday, he wants new handguns sold after June 2003 to employ technology that allows only their users to fire them.
The legislative activity comes four months after state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran (D) called for an all-out ban on handguns. Until that happens, Curran outlined a series of new regulations that would make Maryland gun laws among the strictest in the nation.
"I think there's a new level of outrage and a demand, therefore, that we make some dramatic changes," Glendening (D) said in an interview. "We've got to keep this in front of people every day until we get a change."
Such declarations have prompted a backlash effort from gun rights activists, who are proposing legislation that would make it easier for people to carry concealed weapons. They argue that people need handguns for self-defense and that current gun laws need only be more strictly enforced to take criminals off the streets.
Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson (R-Carroll), a gun rights advocate who sits on the influential Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, plans legislation to require state police to issue permits for concealed weapons to people who take 12 hours of training, removing the police's current discretion to deny permits.
"Right now people are dying from gun violence who should not be dying," Ferguson said. "My side of the story is good people aren't allowed to defend themselves."
With 30 cities, including the District, suing gunmakers for the cost of medical care they say results from gun violence, Ferguson also is proposing legislation that would prohibit Maryland communities from filing their own suits.
Another senator on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel), also dislikes Glendening's proposal and plans legislation to increase penalties for those who use a gun committing a crime, including sending them to federal prison. The plan is modeled after Project Exile in Virginia, which has drawn praise from advocates on both sides of the gun debate.
Jimeno described his proposal as an effort to find middle ground in the gun debate. He has drawn bipartisan support.
Still another senator, Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), is planning legislation that would ban handguns as prizes in raffles. Her move was prompted by the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, which is currently raffling off a 9mm Beretta to raise money for the organization.
Maryland generally has been receptive to gun control efforts, which in the past decade have included bans on Saturday night specials and assault weapons and limits on handgun sales to one per month.
There have been intraparty disputes, with some moderate Republicans splitting with their conservative, pro-gun colleagues and some rural Democrats breaking from suburban counterparts who favor more restrictions. The National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers are preparing to weigh in, and grass-roots gun rights advocates have kept the Internet abuzz about Maryland.
Many politicians have seized on fear about guns and crime. Martin O'Malley (D) was elected Baltimore's mayor in November thanks in part to a promise to crack down on street crime.
Yet the concern comes even as violent crime committed with guns is dropping in Maryland, about a 28 percent decline from 1995 to 1998, the most recent year for which data is available.
"The anti-gun officeholders have made it clear that this is a year for an attack on people's right to keep and bear arms," said Greg Costa, the NRA's legislative liaison for Maryland. "We're going to be very active, and we're going to be communicating closely with our members."
Glendening has embraced the recommendations of a special task force he convened last fall that has said mechanical, built-in gun locks should be required on all new handguns sold in Maryland beginning January 2002. The task force recommended that the more sophisticated technology, which uses fingerprints or requires a shooter to wear a bracelet that emits an authorizing signal to a gun, be required in 2003 or as soon as it is ready for the marketplace. Glendening would exempt sales to law enforcement.
The governor is proposing to spend $3 million over the next three years for research on smart gun technology. One of the nation's most prominent handgun manufacturers, Beretta USA, has its headquarters in Prince George's County, but Glendening said he thought it more likely the money would be used by academic institutions, such as the gun violence program at Johns Hopkins University, or some "whiz kids" who try to develop the technology.
He noted that Beretta has opposed his plans. Representatives of the gun company testified before the governor's task force that the technology is nowhere close to being marketable. The company's political action committee contributed $9,500 last year to seven of the 10 senators on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, including Chairman Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), Jimeno and Ferguson and the other Republicans who oppose the governor's plan.
Because some gun manufacturers say they don't believe the technology is feasible, gun rights advocates accused Glendening of a back-door effort to eliminate handguns.
"It's a gun ban," said Bob McMurray, chairman of Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban, a pro-gun group. "The safety equipment doesn't exist, and it's not going to exist any time soon. We might as well say that automobiles henceforth must operate on internal nuclear power cells, beginning next year."
To bolster its argument against new firearms restrictions, the gun lobby points to two well-publicized instances last year in which the state demonstrated an embarrassing inability to enforce existing gun-control laws.
Between January and March of last year, at least 49 convicted felons and other ineligible buyers were allowed to purchase handguns because Maryland State Police had fallen weeks behind in conducting criminal-background checks. State police had to scramble to confiscate the weapons after they realized their mistakes.
Then in October, authorities disclosed that thousands of people barred from buying guns because they were accused of domestic violence still could purchase firearms because their names had not been entered into criminal-justice computer systems.
The problem surfaced in September when a Laurel man, Richard Wayne Spicknall II, was charged with murder after police said he used a handgun to kill his two young children. Authorities said Spicknall was mistakenly allowed to buy the gun because a clerk in the Howard County sheriff's department did not realize that a restraining order taken out against him by his wife prohibited him from purchasing firearms.
"If you can't enforce the laws on the books, what on earth are you doing enacting new ones?" McMurray said. "Over there in Annapolis, they've always got to pass a law. If people disobey it or ignore it, they just pass another law."
Sometimes laws create other problems. Under state and federal law, anyone who is the subject of a domestic-violence restraining order is prohibited from buying, owning or possessing firearms. Yet there is no real mechanism for accused spouse beaters and child abusers to turn in their guns; even if they take them to a police station, they technically still can be charged with illegal possession of firearms.
Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) said she plans to introduce legislation that would enable police officers or sheriff's deputies to confiscate weapons as soon as a restraining order is issued, without necessarily punishing the gun owner, as long as it is done right away. She said the proposal would encourage people accused of domestic violence to turn in their firearms voluntarily.
"There's no law that specifically tells them how to discard their guns," Ruben said. "The law just says they can't have any. We have to do something."
CAPTION: Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) says "a new level of outrage" will provide support for his gun control proposals.
CAPTION: State Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) is offering a bill on collecting guns from people who are subject to restraining orders.