ANNAPOLIS- Two bills aimed at curbing gun violence are expected to dominate the gun control debate in the Maryland General Assembly this session.
Gov. Parris Glendening’s proposal targets gun owners and manufacturers by requiring technology that allows only authorized users to fire the weapon. The goal is to reduce youth access to guns and decrease the amount of youth-on-youth and accidental killing.
But gaining steady support is a bi-partisan, bi-cameral bill to increase enforcement of existing law by deterring criminals from carrying guns. The plan, which is modeled after one called Project Exile first used in Richmond, Va., would impose mandatory 5-year sentences for criminals charged with weapon posession. Those defendants would be tried in federal court without plea- bargaining or parole options.
Glendening’s smart guns legislation, to be released Monday, will include recommendations made by a task force: new guns sold in Maryland must come with trigger locks by 2002; and, beginning in 2003, if technology allows guns to be fired only by authorized users, gun makers must utilize it.
In his State of the State address Wednesday, Glendening called the gun lobby’s claim that guns cannot be childproofed reliably or affordably “nonsense.”
“We know that the industry will not do what is right until we make them do what is right,” he said. “We can tell them that we are putting our children’s lives ahead of their profits.”
Maryland State Police and State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli favor the proposal. In fact, State Police Superintendent David Mitchell led the governor’s task force.
“I favor it. I think it’s a good idea,” Montanarelli said. “Take advantage of the technology to protect children, who may not know any better, from getting access to guns.”
Ginni Wolf, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, said she agrees with the governor – gun makers must be forced to develop the technology. She pointed to the fact that these companies are constantly developing technology to produce deadlier weapons.
“They have the technology for that and you expect us to believe they don’t have it to make guns safer?” she said.
To help fund the research, Maryland’s only gun manufacturer Beretta USA Corp., in Prince George’s County, will receive a $3 million state grant if the legislation passes.
Both the National Rifle Association and Beretta oppose mandating smart gun technology. Beretta will refuse state funding tied to a mandate, as it is in Glendening’s proposal, said Jeff Reh, general counsel for the company.
“The technology hasn’t been developed and it, quite frankly, might never be satisfactorily developed,” he said. “A mandate would constitute a ban.”
Glendening will face a tough battle in both legislative chambers because many powerful Democrats have signed on to the Project Exile legislation. The bill, written by Delegate Joan Cadden, D-Anne Arundel, has 58 sponsors including House Speaker Casper Taylor, D-Allegany. Taylor has indicated that some form of gun control will pass this session. Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, is sponsoring an identical Senate bill with 26 sponsors. The Senate version is expected to be introduced next week.
The bi-partisan legislation in both houses is modeled after the Project Exile project that began in Richmond, Va., and has since gone statewide. Richmond began prosecuting gun-toting criminals under federal law, which was stricter than the state’s at the time. Plea bargains are prohibited with a federal weapons conviction under Project Exile. Convicts serve an average of five years in federal prison without the possibility of parole. The only difference in Maryland’s legislation is it has a mandatory sentence of five years for such offenses. Therefore, a criminal would be tried in the jurisdiction where the penalty is greatest.
“The bottom line with Project Exile … it’s a mandatory sentence,” Cadden said. Richmond’s success is due, in part, to a “No Guns” advertising campaign that ran on buses, radio and television. The message got out and “bad guys just don’t carry guns anywhere near the rates they used to,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Comey, who oversaw Project Exile. “The advertising sold that message of fear to the criminals. That’s what I consider the genius of the program,” Comey said. “(It’s) very different for law enforcement to use modern advertising to influence criminal behavior.” Exile proponents, like House Majority Whip George Owings III, D-Calvert, say the legislation will allow the state to enforce laws already on the books. “One day, people who have never even held a gun will realize that we already have enough laws on the books to protect the so-called children,” Owings said. “They will go after the prosecutorial side of things instead of this continual erosion of law-abiding citizen’s rights.” Owings, like others, said the governor’s smart gun proposal is more about politics than children.
Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Carroll, is one of 26 cosponsors on Jimeno’s bill, but he’s got his own legislation to counter the governor’s.
“I think it’s more about (Glendening) putting conservatives on the ropes,” he said. “I think it’s all politics, which is why I’m introducing my bills to have a better argument.”
Ferguson’s proposals include requiring all handgun buyers to purchase a lock box. He said trigger locks are only intended for unloaded guns and can be removed.
“(A lock box) truly childproof’s a loaded gun and it allows you to defend your home quickly,” he said.
Ferguson also wants to amend the state’s current right-to-carry law to ensure those who meet seven criteria – including six hours of handgun practice, a six-hour handgun law course and target-shooting test – should automatically be granted a permit. Currently, the Maryland State Police can deny applicants permits even if they meet the criteria. While smart guns and Project Exile seem to be the two main contenders in this session’s gun violence debate, other bills, like Ferguson’s, are sure to come up for consideration. By the bill introduction deadline in mid-February there could be many more gun proposals. -30- CNS-1-21-00