Gun bill draws media to Md.; NRA's enmity helps boost Glendening into national spotlight


The gun lobby is attacking, the cameras are rolling, and life is sweet for Parris N. Glendening, politician.

His gun-lock legislation survived a key vote in a House committee last night, putting Glendening one step from winning passage of the most far-reaching gun safety law in the nation.

In the process, the governor's relatively slim national profile is growing daily as he emerges as a national leader for gun control -- and public enemy No. 1 for the National Rifle Association.

Yesterday alone, Glendening taped four national interviews -- three for radio networks and one for CNN. His gun bill was the lead story on the ABC news last night.

A New York Times reporter came to Annapolis last week and filed a glowing story about the legislation. Glendening was to have been featured on "Fox News Sunday" tomorrow morning, but he got bumped by the Elian Gonzales story.

"If he's looking to raise his national profile, which everyone says he is, he picked a pretty good issue," said Carol Arscott, an Annapolis-based political consultant. "The media just loves the gun issue."

If approved by the House of Delegates as expected, Glendening's legislation will require that all handguns sold in Maryland be equipped with built-in locks by 2003. Guns will have to be sold with external locks in the meantime.

Fortunately for Glendening, the NRA guaranteed widespread media interest when it announced it would begin airing ads showing the governor fumbling with a gun lock at a news conference.

The ads were designed to display the problems the devices can cause for gun users -- and perhaps sway votes against the bill.

But the commercials don't seem to have changed any legislators' minds and have instead given Glendening a clear target similar to the one that "Big Tobacco" provided him during last year's debate on increasing Maryland's cigarette tax.

"What the governor is doing is showing that you can actually gain by standing up to the NRA," Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said.

Good timing

The attention over the gun issue comes at an opportune time for Glendening.

This summer, he assumes the chairmanship of the National Governors' Association, a position that will give him a national forum in the middle of the presidential campaign.

Observers often speculate that Glendening is looking to move next into a federal job -- perhaps in an Al Gore administration.

Gore did nothing to dampen such speculation when he called Glendening to congratulate him Tuesday after the governor defied the odds and won Senate approval for the gun bill.

President Clinton, who himself has won political points playing offense against the NRA, has also praised the governor's efforts.

Yesterday, Glendening sat before the computer in his State House office going over polling data that show the gun control issue could play an important role in this fall's presidential campaign -- to the benefit of Gore.

Election issue

A close watcher of polls for a quarter-century, Glendening marveled at the influence the issue could have on a national race.

"What is happening -- and it's part of the reason there's national interest in this bill -- is the mass killings and the tragedies," Glendening said.

"This is now an agenda item in people's minds."

While he stressed that he was pushing his bill simply for its merits, Glendening acknowledged that he is pleased with the national attention.

But he said the gun-control issue would not have much bearing on his future after the State House. Glendening is barred from seeking a third term in 2002.

"I feel good when I get national attention on things I care about and this is an interesting phenomenon," he said. "But that's not where my political career is going."

"My political future is in the areas of education and environment, and in being a force for fairness and inclusion," he said.

Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor and close observer of Maryland politics, said any national boost Glendening receives would be short-lived.

"But I think it's a big deal for the Democrats," Crenson said. "They have obviously identified gun control as an issue to put the Republicans on the defensive."

Playing political chess

A leading Republican critic of the gun bill said he was not surprised at Glendening's ability to capitalize on the issue -- and even applauded the governor's skill.

"If I were in his position, I'd do the same thing," said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, who represents parts of Frederick and Carroll counties.

"I'd take full advantage of any watershed issue that would give me a national platform."

Added Ferguson: "He's a good political chess player."

Opponents of the gun bill shrug off the publicity they have helped generate for the governor.

"We're kind of put in a hard place," said Jim Purtilo, a gun-rights activist who publishes a newsletter here. "We can try to stand up for our civil rights, which gives him national visibility, or we can roll over. We're not going to roll over."

No matter what it does for Glendening, the publicity also generates interest and activity among people on the other side of the issue, gun rights activists say.

"A lot of other states are watching Maryland," Purtilo said.

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