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Getting control of guns. Maryland law creates board to evaluate guns

Gun-control advocates say a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly last month can be used as a national model for banning cheap handguns known as ``Saturday night specials.'' Maryland became the first state to develop a method for determining what guns have no legitimate purpose and then banning their sale and manufacture.

But Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran says the law will have minimal impact on the state unless the federal government or surrounding states also ban the guns.

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Handgun-control bills have failed repeatedly in Congress, largely because of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA).

The Maryland law creates a nine-member board to decide which handguns have legitimate uses as weapons for sport, law enforcement, or self-protection. The board will be headed by the superintendent of state police and include a member of the NRA, a gun manufacturer, and a member of a gun-control group. Manufacture and sale of weapons not on the ``good gun'' list will be prohibited beginning in 1990, and stiff fines are allowed for violators.

Gun-control groups say the law's passage was significant not only because of the bill's provisions, but also because it marks a significant defeat for the NRA.

``The Maryland legislation will help our national effort,'' says Kristin Rand, counsel for the Coalition to Ban Handguns. ``Legislators are predisposed to our side, but they are afraid of the NRA. This will serve as a model that the NRA can't do anything to them.''

NRA lawyer Richard Gardner says the lobby lost in Maryland only because the legislation moved so quickly. He insists that the tide nationwide is on its side. In the last nine years, he says, six states have added amendments to their constitutions guaranteeing the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms, and two dozen states have passed laws prohibiting local governments from controlling guns.

But recent decisions in other state legislatures and Congress have also gone against the NRA.

In Minnesota, the Legislature stopped an NRA-sponsored constitutional amendment that would have jeopardized all of the state's gun laws. And in Wisconsin, lawmakers rebuffed an NRA move to repeal the state's gun laws and prohibit local governments from passing new regulations. Both states did pass laws prohibiting local governments from banning guns altogether, however.

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Meanwhile, a congressional committee has approved a bill over the NRA's objections that would prohibit the manufacture and sale of plastic handguns that cannot be spotted by airport metal detectors.

In Maryland, antigun groups used established NRA tactics to turn what looked like a certain defeat into a victory in the waning days of the legislative session. They brought in big-name lobbyists such as Coretta Scott King, wife of the slain civil rights leader, and Sarah Brady, wife of White House spokesman Jim Brady, who was wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, as well as an army of volunteer lobbyists. And they ran radio spots urging people to call their state legislators in support of the bill.

Maryland lawmakers were aware of the soaring murder rate in nearby Washington, D.C., where drug trafficking was leading to shootings almost nightly.

``My district probably has more handgun crimes than any other in the state,'' says Maryland Delegate Ralph M. Hughes, one of the bill's sponsors. ``When we were in session, I could pick up a newspaper daily and read about my constituents getting shot.''

US Rep. Larry Smith (D) of Florida, who proposed the most recent federal legislation aimed at curbing Saturday night specials, said the Maryland law should help motivate Congress.

``I'm very happy with what Maryland did, because now we can show Congress that it's way behind in the loop,'' Congressman Smith says. ``We can point to what Maryland did, and then get Congress to at least plug up the loopholes in federal law. Maryland legislators showed they could withstand a full-court press from the NRA, and nothing will happen to them.''

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