YOU WOULD THINK from their orchestrated bleats that Maryland gun dealers were caught off guard -- and hadn't known perfectly well for nearly three years that an internal-trigger-lock law would take effect on Jan. 1, 2003. Suddenly, and no doubt in hopes of tearing at the heartstrings of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., opponents of the safety requirement say that they fear for their livelihoods, that only a small number of handgun models on the market meet the law's standards. Glossed over in their despair is any acknowledgment that the law might have the effect intended by its advocates: saving lives, especially those of children.

Under the law, the only newly made handguns that dealers may sell in Maryland are those with integrated locking mechanisms that limit a weapon's use to those who hold the key or know the combination. Dealers say the feature is found on about 25 percent of handguns on the market. That's a start, surely, and as with so many gun laws, this one came with a loophole to ease the dealers' transition: They are still permitted to sell any used and new handguns without integrated locks if the weapons were manufactured before 2003. More than a few dealers knew enough to stockpile arsenals of these models for their clientele.

Many dealers are arguing that the internal-lock guns won't do much to save lives. They say that it can be difficult to tell by sight if such a weapon is locked unless the lock is tested, which could result in accidental firing of a gun assumed to be locked. How difficult is that for manufacturers to retool? Instead of fighting to repeal a sensible lifesaving measure, Maryland's dealers should step up pressure on manufacturers to make changes in their models.

The trigger-lock provision was part of a package of gun safety measures aimed at preventing shootings rather than concentrating narrowly on punishing those who use guns in crimes. Maryland has been a leader in enacting safety requirements, but the effectiveness of any such measures is limited unless they can be made part of federal law. Better registries of gun owners and ballistic "fingerprints" ought to be established nationwide, and more technology should be incorporated that can restrict a gun's use to its owner.

During his campaign for governor, Mr. Ehrlich said he would review the state's gun laws to determine their effectiveness. That should not mean weakening or repealing laws but rather making them more effective. Time and again, Marylanders have voiced strong support for gun safety laws, measures aimed at saving lives, not waiting to act after lives have been taken.