Mayor should know better than to use empty gestures

February 06, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From the beginning, the thing that everyone writes about the mayor of all Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, is what a brilliant fellow he is, which we can now examine with two moves in the past week aimed at stopping the bleeding around here.

We refer to the television-friendly plan of the mayor's to spend money to take guns off the street - yeah, those street thugs are just lining up to disarm themselves! - and his publicized directive to the state's attorney's office to make no deals with defendants charged with gun violations.

With both moves, we can report the following: You don't need an Oxford education to see right through them.

The gun buyback, which succeeded in stopping no shooting in its previous manifestations in Baltimore, is mainly an opportunity for this mayor to make an empty gesture for the evening news. A 3-year-old is murdered while getting his hair cut, so this mayor needs the look of action. Show him astride a stack of guns, somebody suggests, and surely such a collection of hardware will count for something. Maybe criminals will confuse the mayor with Eliot Ness.

So he offers to buy back a thousand guns at $100 apiece, which is not only an empty gesture, but naive.

Of the thousand guns, which are turned in quite rapidly, the mayor admits many came from law-abiding folks who either needed the $100 or wished to make some kind of noble statement of their own about getting guns out of circulation.

But everyone knows the obvious: Street hoods don't turn in their guns, except to use the cash to buy newer weapons. The mayor does not address this possibility.

But look, for a moment, at the thousand guns. Is this supposed to be significant? Last year, city police processed 3,395 handguns and 4,241 long guns through their crime lab - and these 7,636 seized weapons represent just a fraction of the guns in circulation.

But, having made his pitch to buy back weapons - and having gotten some private, heartfelt but naive money to add to the buyback - the mayor goes one step further, and it's a beaut. He lays the problem in the lap of the state's attorney's office.

And why not? You've got the shooting of Korean merchants in the news. You've got a hideous murder rate, and you've got the 3-year-old whose killing seems to symbolize the loss of the whole city's innocence. So what's the mayor supposed to do - blame lack of political leadership?

Nope, he says the state's attorney's office should stop negotiating gun charges. Meaning, some guy pulls an armed robbery, no more plea bargaining his way out of it by saying, OK, I'll admit to the robbery and take a reduced sentence if you'll drop the gun charge.

This, on the surface, is such a natural move, and such a brilliant one worthy of a Rhodes scholar, that it makes you wonder why a previous state's attorney, named Kurt L. Schmoke, never thought to do the same thing.

He had the job from 1982 to 1987, during which time there were 1,322 homicides in the city, mostly by shooting, not to mention thousands more crimes committed with guns, a time when Baltimoreans cringed from violence and wondered how to make it stop.

If it's such a wonderful idea, this new refusal to plea bargain gun cases, did Schmoke try it when he was prosecutor? Of course not. Everybody who sat through a single day's proceedings in a criminal court knew this and understood the reasoning behind it.

"It's an absolutely crazy idea," said one veteran city prosecutor, who asked not to be identified, "and the mayor knows it. How can you not plea bargain certain gun cases? You've got to look at the evidence. You get a drug case with an iffy chance of conviction, but the guy's willing to deal: Drop the gun charge, and he'll plead guilty to drugs. It gets the guy off the street for a couple of years, whereas if you go to trial, you tie up everything for four days and maybe get nothing at all out of it. Cases can go either way. The mayor knows this. If we didn't plea bargain, the courts would grind to an absolute halt in a matter of days."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, the target of the mayor's words, naturally agrees.

"I presume the mayor made his statement without thinking," Jessamy said. Refusing to plea bargain gun cases is "not something I could do, and I'm not going to go along with something I can't do, no matter what the politics are."

Then she got defensive - detailing grants written by her office to aid police on gun cases, noting her office's refusal to return guns even when defendants are acquitted, noting a new unit she established to gather intelligence on gun trafficking.

"I'm a big girl," Jessamy said, "and I can take it. I've been yelling and pleading that we stop fighting with each other and just do our jobs. I don't have time for public fighting with the mayor, and I don't think the citizens are well served by it."

Nor are they well served by empty gestures: a gun buyback that will fade, while the gunplay continues; and an attempt to pressure prosecutors in order to deflect pressure off a mayor who's smart enough to know better.

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