A 1997 study, conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, revealed that an American child gets his or her hands on a gun and fires it about 10,000 times a year. Approximately 800 Americans die as a result. Last year 21 Maryland children under age 16 were killed by handguns.

Guns are present in more than 40 percent of all U.S. households, and a Justice Department study found that 55 percent are kept loaded. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that children accidentally shoot other children or themselves. About 90 percent of these accidental shootings are directly linked to an unlocked, loaded firearm in the house.

The only state law that we have to protect Maryland's children from accidental injury or death from a handgun imposes a $1,000 fine on anyone who leaves a loaded weapon in a place accessible to minors. That law is pitifully inadequate, and a fine is meaningless in the face of a child's death or disabling injury.

Although the federal government and the states have failed to approve childproof handgun laws, about 20 local jurisdictions in Maryland -- including Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- have approved laws to require that safety locks be sold with every handgun.

Recently, Gov. Parris Glendening appointed a 21-member task force, headed by Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, to examine various technical options to make handguns childproof and to draft legislation to recommend legislation to require that all new guns sold in Maryland be childproof.

The National Rifle Association and other similar gun organizations have opposed mandatory childproof handguns, claiming the technology for making "smart guns" is insufficiently developed. Indeed, more work is needed on childproofing that relies on fingerprint sensors and computer chips to keep anyone but the owner from firing the gun. Nevertheless, safety handgun locks, costing between $10 and $30, are being used effectively.

Opponents of childproof handguns argue that just because a person purchases a trigger lock does not mean it will be used. That may be true in some cases, but is hardly sufficient reason to defeat legislation for childproof handguns.

We should settle for nothing less than maximum protection from handguns for our children -- which means mandatory childproofing of handguns. A University of Chicago survey reveals that 75 percent of handgun owners and likely handgun purchasers support laws that deal with childproofing handguns.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, from 1988 to 1997 more than 2,300 American children under age 14 died from accidental shootings. In the face of this unnecessary carnage, Maryland should and must pass legislation to make childproof handguns mandatory.

-- Gloria Lawlah

a Democrat, represents Prince George's County

in the Maryland Senate.