Gun-safety law's impact will take years to develop Md. measure's place in history awaits court, state reaction


To Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Maryland's new gun-safety law is a call to the nation to take action to save lives, particularly those of curious children and troubled teens.

To Greg Costa, the National Rifle Association's liaison here, the "deeply flawed" legislation "was never about anything more than a photo op."

Glendening scored an important victory when he fought his way to General Assembly passage of the "Responsible Gun Safety Act of 2000" during the legislative session that ended Monday.

How much substance lies behind the symbolism is a matter that might take years to sort out.

The complicated bill was pushed through the Assembly without the usual tweaking by lawmakers. Some key passages are murky, though the state attorney general's office says its intent is clear. The final decisions might be up to the courts.

Among other provisions, the law is the nation's first to require manufacturers to equip their handguns with built-in locks. Another ground-breaking provision requires firearms makers to provide ballistic information about each handgun to the state police to help them solve crimes.

With President Clinton on hand to lend support, Glendening signed the bill into law Tuesday. On hand were the mothers of several children killed in gun accidents of the type the law is intended to prevent.

Michael Barnes, president of Handgun Control Inc., said symbolism is important in the gun debate. "The gun lobby has this perception of being invincible," the former congressman said. "The governor of Maryland took on the gun lobby, he beat them, and that's an important message for a national audience."

In one respect, the law is limited. It does nothing to affect the estimated more than 1 million handguns in circulation in Maryland, many of which will be around for decades.

"There won't be any big immediate impact because it doesn't go back and require retrofitting of the existing guns, but it will save lives," said Barnes.

Nothing in the law requires handgun owners to use locks. Supporters hope the convenience of having them built in will prompt owners to use them, but they concede there are no guarantees.

"It's kind of like seat belts on a car. If you don't buckle them, they're not any good," said Ken Jorgensen, a spokesman for Smith & Wesson. That company's settlement with the federal government last month gave the legislation new life when it appeared hopelessly stalled.

Even if the law passes muster in the courts, it will have to prove itself in the streets and homes of Maryland.

Current law-abiding handgun owners will feel none of the effects of the bill unless they want to add to their store of firearms. The bill is directed at future buyers.

Beginning in October, all handguns sold in the state will be required to have external trigger locks. The impact of that requirement, which several other states have adopted, is likely to be minimal because many manufacturers, including Maryland-based Beretta, already ship their guns with such locks.

As of next year, handgun buyers in Maryland will have to attend a two-hour course on gun safety. They won't have to pass a test, a provision some gun advocates deride, though it was included in the bill at their insistence.

Supporters say the education provision is important.

"It's going to raise people's consciousness about how important gun safety is," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat who supported the bill.

The education requirement is one of the less objectionable provisions to gun-rights advocates. Costa noted that while the NRA opposes mandates as a matter of principle, it has long favored gun-safety education. "We simply don't think it should be a condition of your exercising a constitutional right," he said.

Gun-rights supporters are more critical of the "ballistic fingerprinting" requirement, under which manufacturers will have to provide dealers with a spent casing from each handgun they sell in the state.

Jeff Reh, general counsel of Maryland-based Beretta U.S.A., said the provision will require manufacturers to segregate guns they want to ship to the state. He said some would likely stop doing business here rather than comply.

Smith & Wesson's Jorgensen, whose company has agreed to a similar provision with the federal government, said he worries that many states will impose different versions of the requirement.

There's going to be a point where some kind of conformity becomes important," he said.

Some gun-rights advocates say the "ballistic fingerprints" will have little value.

Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican who led opposition to the bill, said criminals will alter the guns to make them untraceable. "The organized bad people are just going to sidestep this," he said.

Col. David Mitchell, superintendent of the state police, said that argument overestimates the average gun offender. "Believe me, criminals don't go to that extent," he said. "Jails are full of them."

The most pressing questions regarding the legislation involve its best-known provision: the requirement that as of 2003, new handguns sold in the state must be equipped with "integrated mechanical safety devices."

Drafters of the bill meant to require a built-in lock with a key, a combination or other means of preventing an unauthorized user from firing the gun. But some say the language is vague and could face a legal challenge that could render the provision meaningless.

Reh said the bill's definition of a mechanical lock is broad enough to include an external safety lever, an existing device that any user could disarm. The attorney general's office disagrees, contending the language clearly requires more sophisticated technology.

Costa predicted that manufacturers will test the law by seeking to sell guns in 2003 with today's commonly available safeties.

If the Glendening administration's view of the law is upheld, some critics contend, it will have unintended consequences. Reh said Beretta has not yet found an internal lock technology that it considers reliable. He said the company is looking, but that it will be forced out of the Maryland market if it can't develop such a gun.

"We won't sell a gun in Maryland unless it meets our standards for safety," he said.

But Jorgensen said Smith & Wesson expects to deliver the locks in 2002 as its agreement with the Clinton administration requires. He believes some other manufacturers will, too. One result all agree on is that enhanced gun safety doesn't come free. The manufacturers say they don't know how much the requirement will add to the price of a gun, but the task force that helped draft Glendening's proposal estimated the extra cost at $90.

Critics say the money might not buy greater safety for gun owners. They contend the locks might leave people unable to open locks quickly when under attack.

Gun-safety advocates say such incidents are rare and that the locks will prevent many accidental deaths by children, suicides by troubled teens and homicides with stolen weapons.

Stephen Teret, director of the Center on Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University, said it will be hard to measure the effect of gun locks because the deaths they prevent will never be reported.

"I don't have any doubt in my mind that sometime within the year the bill goes into effect, some child will be eating dinner with his parents who could have been dead from playing with an unlocked firearm," he said.

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