Program aims to take guns off street State's attorney targets violators for tough prosecution

December 01, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The county's top prosecutor says he has a message for anyone packing heat: Leave your guns at home.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee has formed a prosecution unit to take guns off the streets by making sure that every handgun-possession charge is targeted for tough prosecution.

Weathersbee said the newHandgun Offender Prosecution Team program means District Court cases with charges that include handgun possession will be assigned to Thomas J. Pryal, who will transfer the case to Circuit Court and seek jail time of up to three years.

Pryal, a seven-year prosecutor, also will oppose efforts to keep 16- and 17-year-old suspects charged with handgun possession from being tried in juvenile court, where the punishments are generally less severe.

Under Maryland law, decisions on sentences and on a juvenile offender's court status before trial is left up to the trial judge.

But Weathersbee said that by cracking down on handgun cases, he hopes to discourage what is an alarming trend nationally and locally -- an increasing number of juveniles carrying handguns.

"We can only hope that the judges take these cases seriously and that people get the message that if they have guns they should keep them at home," Weathersbee said.

Weathersbee said the effort is aimed at cases in which motorists stopped by police for traffic or minor drug violations are caught illegally carrying a handgun.

The program was announced last week after a monthlong pilot study in which prosecutors found that five of 10 District Court handgun-possession cases involved juveniles, Weathersbee said.

Anne Arundel County Public "I don't know if they think it's neat or what, but there seem to be more kids carrying guns," he said.

Defender Alan R. Friedman said the program will not necessarily mean stiffer sentences because sentencing minimums and maximums for handgun possession are spelled out by state law.

He agreed with the goal of getting guns away from kids. But he said that a more comprehensive approach has to be taken to reverse the tide of juvenile gun violence.

"The question is what are we going to do to stop kids from carrying guns?" he said. "The problem is bigger than redistributing cases from the District Court to the Circuit Court."

But Pryal said the program at least will ensure that handgun cases get a closer look by prosecutors and judges.

"In District Court, you might have 30 or 40 cases on the docket on any given day, but in Circuit Court we'll have more time to concentrate and focus on the case and give it the attention it deserves," Pryal said.

Handgun owners in Maryland do not need a permit. But state police permits are required for anyone who plans to carry a hand- gun or transport one in a car or truck.

There are several exceptions to the permit requirement, such as transporting a gun for shooting competitions, target practices or repairs by a gun shop.

The law says those caught illegally "wearing, carrying or transporting" a handgun are subject to 30 days to three years in prison for a first offense, and one year to three years for a second offense, Weathersbee said.

Weathersbee said the need for the program was discovered about two years ago when his office began screening charging documents filed in every District Court case by the police and by citizens.

Weathersbee said prosecutors discovered an increasing number of handguns being carried by those arrested for traffic and minor drug offenses.

Anne Arundel County police statistics show that weapon offenses increased 3.2 percent during the first nine months of this year to 873, from 846 for the same period last year.

The numbers include charges for illegally carrying other types of concealed weapons, such as knives.

But prosecutors said illegal handgun-possession cases make up the majority of those charged.

"There are a lot of handguns out there. More people just seem to be carrying them around, and the point is that if you have it you're more likely to use it," Weathersbee said.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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