Gun sales panel disputes Ehrlich remarks

Members of the Handgun Roster Board, whose effectiveness Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has questioned, said yesterday that the panel is essential in preventing cheap handguns from spreading across Maryland.

"It's been effective in ensuring good quality control on guns sold in Maryland," said Maryland State Police Col. David B. Mitchell, chairman of the 11-member panel that regulates handgun sales in Maryland. "You don't see junk being sold" anymore, he said.

Mitchell, the top-ranking state police officer, said in an interview that the resulting removal of Saturday night specials and other cheap, easily hidden handguns has contributed to a 41 percent decline in gun crimes during the past eight years.

The board was thrust into the spotlight this month after Ehrlich said he wanted to "review" it and another gun control program to see if they were worthwhile.

His rival, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and gun control advocates made an issue of the remarks, asserting Ehrlich wanted to abolish the board and generally try to reverse Maryland's strict gun laws. Ehrlich denied those assertions.

The little-known board -- established in 1990 to curb the spread of small, cheap handguns found frequently at crime scenes -- decides whether thousands of handguns can be legally sold in Maryland every year.

Yesterday, the panel, which meets about every six weeks at State Police Headquarters in Reisterstown, unanimously approved guidelines that will require every handgun sold in Maryland and manufactured after Dec. 31 to have a permanent gun lock, known as an integrated mechanical safety device.

For two years under Maryland law, handguns sold in the state have had to have an external safety lock. But those can be removed.

Six members, just enough to make a quorum, attended the 35-minute meeting. For much of the meeting, a projector displayed a remark by Townsend: "It is easier to child-proof a gun than to gun-proof a child."

Victor Merkel, who owns a sporting-goods shop in Cumberland that sells guns, complained that attendance was a persistent problem and said the board violated the constitutional right to bear arms.

But he added, "I think it's very effective in doing away with Saturday night specials."

The governor appoints board members to four-year terms. The members represent a variety of interests, including the police, gun manufacturers and anti-gun advocates.

Dario Broccolino, a deputy state's attorney in Howard County, said the board's work reviewing handguns was "tedious" and the board almost always approves the weapons for sale without discussion.

"But I think that is a good thing, because the work of the board in establishing guidelines has made manufacturers know not to submit a gun if it doesn't cut the mustard," Broccolino said.

Laverne Turner, a retired teacher from Baltimore who is a member, said: "It is effective. We put in place certain rules and regulations for approving a gun. And if it does not fit those guidelines, I don't vote for it."