Nation & World

Lt. gov. pledges stricter gun law

Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday that she would seek legislation to expand Maryland's ballistic fingerprinting program to include regulated legal assault rifles, her first specific pledge to toughen the state's gun-control laws.

"We need to do ballistic testing on all assault weapons and automatic weapons," Townsend told a meeting of The Sun's editorial board, saying she was responding to the series of sniper shootings in the Washington suburbs.

Also during the meeting, the lieutenant governor said that she would seek reforms to Maryland's $27 billion state pension system, whose board has faced allegations recently about conflicts of interest involving fund managers.

Townsend's call to expand ballistic fingerprinting beyond handguns to include the 45 types of assault rifles regulated by Maryland is based on the recommendations of Col. David B. Mitchell, the state superintendent of police.

"We feel it would be helpful to focus our investigative efforts," Mitchell said yesterday. "It's reasonable, it's sensible and its time is now."

Maryland is one of two states to have begun a ballistic fingerprint database, which keeps records on the shell casings of handguns sold in Maryland. When police find a shell casing at a crime scene, they can check its markings against the casings in the database and, if there's a match, link the gun to its original owner.

In the Washington-area sniper shootings, police have been unable to compare shell casing evidence because the state's database doesn't include weapons such as hunting rifles or assault rifles, Mitchell said. Though police don't know the specific type of weapon being used, an assault rifle is a possibility.

"We have a casing from one scene, and unfortunately, because we don't have assault rifles in the database now, there's no database to compare it to," Mitchell said. "It would be an enormous investigative lead for us."

Mitchell said he recommended expanding the ballistic fingerprinting program to assault rifles because that type of weapon is regulated by the state like handguns, including requiring applications and a seven-day waiting period. By contrast, Townsend and Mitchell said it would be too restrictive to include more traditional hunting rifles or shotguns.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has called for an expansion of ballistic fingerprinting and the creation of a national database -- something Townsend did not endorse yesterday.

A spokesman for Townsend's opponent, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the Baltimore County congressman would support expanding ballistic fingerprinting if it is found to be effective.

Ehrlich made headlines last month when he singled out the program as one he would like to review if he is elected, questioning its effectiveness. Authorities have used it to match only two guns to crimes but have not charged anyone.

"What Bob has said in the past is if this program works, then it should be expanded," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "If it doesn't work, let's find out why not and fix it."

Townsend's plan seems likely to run into opposition from gun-rights advocates, who bitterly fought the creation of Maryland's ballistic fingerprinting program during the 2000 General Assembly session.

The National Rifle Association issued a statement yesterday criticizing the reliability of ballistic fingerprinting. "It defies reasons why a criminal or terrorist intent on violence would not avail himself of a firearm never subjected to 'fingerprinting,' altered into anonymity or imported from another country," the group's statement said.

In discussing the pension board, Townsend noted at least four other states that have made changes recently due to concerns about conflicts of interest involving the people managing funds -- including New York, California, Ohio and North Carolina.

"I'm going to work with our legislative leaders and people in the pension system to see what we can do to bring some confidence," Townsend said. "Reforms need to be made."

Maryland's pension system -- which provides retirement benefits for state employees and teachers -- has been the subject of a federal grand jury probe into the actions of money manager Nathan A. Chapman Jr. Chapman is the chairman of the state university system's Board of Regents and a friend of the governor.

Schurick said Ehrlich welcomes Townsend's support for reform to the pension system, which is something he has called for.

"That pension system has been dogged by scandals and conflicts of interest for years," Schurick said. "It's about time that she acknowledges the problems that her administration has had with it. It's a little late, but better late than never."