Anti-gun policy pulls 814 firearms off city streets this year Local, national effort focuses on prosecuting weapons-carrying felons

March 13, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Standing before a table blanketed with pistols and shotguns, Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said yesterday his officers have pulled 814 firearms off the streets in the first two months of this year a 30 percent increase he attributed to his new anti-gun policy.

Flanked by city and federal law enforcement officials, Mr. Frazier said the new policy is slowly making the city's streets safer, without compromising investigations into other crimes, such as drug trafficking.

"That's 814 guns that can't be pointed at innocent bystanders," the commissioner said at a police headquarters news conference.

Earlier this year, Mr. Frazier announced that he was turning the attention of the city's police force away from low-level drug possession cases and focusing it instead on stripping guns from street criminals.

Mr. Frazier said yesterday the policy is starting to pay off.

In January, the department confiscated 438 firearms, 206 of them semiautomatic pistols, a weapon favored by drug traffickers. Last month, the department took 376 guns off the streets, 197 of them semiautomatics.

During the same two months in 1995, the department confiscated 564 guns.

With firearms becoming more sophisticated they are easier to conceal and carry more deadly rounds and with 3 million more guns manufactured each year, Mr. Frazier acknowledged that his department is fighting a barely winnable war.

"We know this doesn't represent a victory," he said.

But with the department focusing on gun violence, coupled with a federal program that is targeting gun-carrying felons, people living in some of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods could see fewer shootings on their streets, the commissioner said.

"People need to feel safe about being outside," Mr. Frazier said.

Prosecutors will review the firearms cases to determine whether any of the suspects qualify for prosecution under a federal program called "Disarm." It's a joint local and national effort to target gun violence and prosecute suspects through the federal court system, where sentences are far stiffer for firearm and drug trafficking violations.

"The main targets of the program are repeat, violent felons," said M. Stewart Allen, who heads the Baltimore division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Mr. Allen said yesterday that a recent ATF study found that habitual offenders commit an average of 160 crimes each year.

Under the "Disarm" program, repeat gun law offenders or suspects carrying firearms during drug crimes can qualify for federal prosecution.

"This is one of the most successful programs I've seen in my career," Mr. Allen said.

Federal and city prosecutors said the program, begun in 1994, is starting to take its toll on criminals.

Last year, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy changed her drug prosecution policy, focusing her office on serious drug and gun cases while clearing the felony court docket of smaller possession cases.

"We continue to prosecute defendants vigorously in Baltimore City," she said yesterday. "But we have to make an emphasis on getting guns off the streets."

During yesterday's news conference, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia unfurled long sheets of paper chronicling the criminal past of one of the 74 suspects prosecuted under the "Disarm" program in Maryland. Ross Avon Sellman, 45, with a rap sheet for robbery, breaking and entering and drug trafficking, is now serving a 26-year federal sentence for possessing drugs and guns. Ms. Battaglia said her office is anxious to accommodate more career criminals like Sellman.

"These are the types of people who should be prosecuted federally," she said.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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