Gov. Parris N. Glendening is seriously considering vetoing legislation that would make Maryland the first state to require that all public school students take a gun safety class.
The governor has been besieged with calls from teachers troubled by the measure's cost and by a provision under which students in grades seven to 12 could - if their school systems chose - handle rifles, shotguns, handguns or ammunition at shooting ranges.
"Under the legislation, middle or high school students in Maryland who have the propensity to shoot up their schools would learn how to handle firearms in, of all places, the very schools in which they are students," Sharon Y. Blake, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said in a May 1 letter to Glendening.
"While the intent of [the legislation] may have been well-meaning, the bill is still a bad bill," Blake said.
Teachers have been among the governor's strongest political supporters. But Glendening is also being lobbied hard by proponents of the legislation, which was approved last month by the General Assembly with support from a coalition of urban liberals and rural conservatives.
Getting the bill passed was a project of John and Carole Price of Carroll County, whose 13-year-old son, John Joseph Price, was killed in 1998 by a 9-year-old boy playing with a handgun. His death inspired Carroll County to implement gun safety courses in local schools.
"Our goal was to save children's lives," John Price said yesterday, adding that he and his wife have been invited to meet with the governor today to discuss the bill.
Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said the governor will announce today which bills he intends to veto, and he emphasized that a decision had not been made about the gun safety measure. But Glendening is clearly considering a veto of the legislation, according to others familiar with his thinking.
"I have personally implored the governor not to veto the bill," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat and staunch supporter of the measure.
"My argument would be that he should accept the judgment of the state legislature and take this step forward, realizing that if fine-tuning needs to be accomplished in the future, that can easily be done," Taylor said.
The bill was a compromise between urban lawmakers hoping to teach children about the dangers of firearms and rural legislators eager to promote hunter safety.
Under the legislation, counties would have curriculum options including the "Eddie Eagle" gun safety program devised by the National Rifle Association, the "In a Flash" program developed by the National Emergency Medical Association and the "STAR" program created by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
The bill says the classes could not involve having guns on school premises.
But in her letter, Blake cited the provision stating that the curriculum for seventh- to 12th- graders could include "the display and handling of ammunition and an actual handgun, rifle, shotgun or other firearm at an established sport shooting range."
Teachers from other parts of the state have expressed a similar concern.
"I personally would be opposed to something where kids would handle guns. I think that's sending the wrong message," said Cindy Cummings, president of the Carroll County Education Association, an affiliate of the state's largest teachers union. She said she did favor teaching hunter safety.
Some teachers have also raised concerns about the measure's price tag. The estimated cost ranges from $8,400 in Kent County to $74,050 in Baltimore County and $81,450 in Baltimore City, according to legislative analysts.
But Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who helped craft the bill, said, "It's just not that expensive. There is already canned curricula, so it can cost almost nothing. You don't have to reinvent the wheel."
Hoffman said teachers' fears about students in shooting ranges were unwarranted.
"I assume in Western Maryland they would absolutely want to do it so they can operate a gun in hunting without shooting themselves," she said. "But nobody would have to do it."
The General Assembly has "only mandated curriculum twice," Hoffman continued. "One was HIV-AIDS education as a public health issue, and one is for this. Kids are fascinated with guns, and they need to know guns can kill them."