On hand at the State House to witness Maryland's landmark gun-safety bill being signed into law, President Clinton called on Congress yesterday to heed the state's example and pass a long-stalled gun-control measure.
The president stood behind Gov. Parris N. Glendening and General Assembly leaders as they signed the governor's legislation to require built-in locks on all handguns sold here, the first bill of its kind in the nation.
"I hope that the United States Congress is paying attention to this event today, because every child in America deserves the protection you have given Maryland's children," Clinton told the audience of about 500 that gathered in the rotunda hours after the Assembly adjourned for the year.
More than 100 legislators who backed the bill joined with gun-control advocates and relatives of gun victims for the ceremony, which was punctuated by round after round of applause that echoed through the capitol dome.
Basking in the attention of national media, Glendening said the Maryland measure -- which was approved after a hard-fought battle with the National Rifle Association -- would be copied.
"In the months and years to follow, I predict that ceremonies like this will take place in statehouses across the country," Glendening said.
Congress has for months refused to pass Clinton's gun bill, which would require that firearms be sold with child-safety locks, ban the import of large-capacity ammunition clips and close a loophole allowing the sale of weapons at gun shows without background checks.
"Every single day Congress waits, we lose 12 children, nearly 90 people overall, to gun violence," Clinton said. "Congress should follow Maryland's lead."
It was the first time during his presidency that Clinton has attended a state's bill signing, a signal of the importance he places on the Maryland legislation.
Several advocates for victims of gun violence attended the ceremony, many of them wearing buttons featuring photographs of their lost loved ones.
Carole Price wore a picture of her 13-year-old son John, who was killed in White Marsh in 1998 by a 9-year-old friend handling his family's gun. She talked briefly with Clinton and hugged the governor and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend after the ceremony.
"The president said, 'Congratulations, your son is beautiful. I bet he's very proud of his mother,' " Price said, her eyes moist with tears.
About 60 high school students sat behind the dais wearing red and yellow T-shirts that played off the colors of the Maryland flag.
Jennifer Fryatt, an 18-year-old Lansdowne High School senior who testified for the bill, was invited by the governor's office to attend with a group of her friends.
"It's going to ensure the safety of children today and for generations to come," she said.
The legislation requires that all handguns be sold with external trigger locks beginning Oct. 1. Built-in locks will be required after Jan. 1, 2003.
In addition, manufacturers will have to ship a spent casing with each gun sold -- the first such requirement in the country. The casings will be turned over to the state police for a database to help trace guns used in crimes.
The measure also mandates stiffer penalties for some gun crimes and requires most handgun purchasers to attend a two-hour gun-safety course.
The NRA and many legislators objected to the measure as an assault on a citizen's right to self-defense, saying the locks could hinder someone trying to use a gun to ward off an assault. The NRA ran television ads ridiculing Glendening after he had trouble demonstrating a handgun equipped with a built-in lock.
The governor wore the NRA's attacks as a badge of honor.
"Today we ask the gun lobby to work with the vast majority of Americans and become part of the solution to end the horror of gun violence," Glendening said.
The governor used three pens to sign the bill, keeping one and giving Clinton and Townsend the others.
Though Clinton's relationship with Glendening grew frosty after the governor distanced himself during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the president praised the state's chief executive yesterday.
"In almost everything I have tried to accomplish as president, Maryland has been out there on the forefront of change ahead of the other states in virtually every area," Clinton said.
As for the governor, Clinton said: "He's sort of low-key. You have to keep listening to Parris Glendening. But I must say, he wears well."
Assembly deliberations exposed an ideological fault line, as the measure won almost unanimous support from legislators from urban and suburban areas but strong opposition in rural areas.
Clinton praised lawmakers who took a political chance by backing the bill, mentioning House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- Democrats who represent generally conservative districts.
"I know how hard this vote was for a lot of you," Clinton said.
After the signing, Taylor said he was "taking heat" from his constituents about his support of the legislation but said most Western Marylanders support the bill when they learn what's in it.
Del. John A. Giannetti Jr., who voted for the bill despite reservations about some of its language, said he and other members of the House Judiciary Committee had little sense of the national implications of the legislation when they took it up late last month.
"This bill represents a historic moment for the state of Maryland, and we didn't realize it as we voted on it," said Giannetti, a Prince George's Democrat.
Leaving the capitol, Clinton stopped his motorcade on State Circle to shake hands with dozens of people who had waited to catch a glimpse. Most were content to shake his hand. Peggy Mitchell, 83, gave him a compliment.
"You are so gorgeous," she said.
Quickly, the president leaned down and kissed her cheek.
"I got a kiss," she said. "I actually got a kiss from Clinton. Oh, wow!"
After shaking hands, the president browsed in Aurora Gallery, a shop less than a block from the State House. He bought a couple of cat pins and a ceramic candy dish held up by three black-and-white cats, which he said look like his cat, Socks.
Sun staff writers Gady A. Epstein and M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.