Police to use cards as warning

`Carry a gun. Go to jail' will be message passed out to people on streets

June 23, 1999|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

If you're hanging out on a street corner in Baltimore in the next few weeks, a police officer might hand you a black card with a warning on it.

"Carry a gun. Go to jail," read the business cards, 50,000 of which will be distributed by police as part of a federal and city anti-gun publicity campaign.

"It's the opposite of the Monopoly `get-out-of-jail-free' card," said Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. "This is a `get-into-jail' card."

The cards are being handed to people on city streets as a way of advertising a federal program, Project Disarm, that aims to impose stiff sentences on repeat offenders linked to drug trafficking and gun use.

Disarm has been around since May 1994, but the card-delivering idea is a new concept thought up by prosecutors, city police and agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The message on the cards will also be on billboards and the sides of buses throughout Baltimore.

Baltimore Police Public Affairs Director Robert W. Weinhold Jr. said an anti-criminal marketing campaign represents a first for city police.

"The key strategic concept is to firmly market our message to criminals at the grass-roots level," Weinhold said. "It's novel. The message `Carry a gun. Go to jail' will be emblazoned on billboards and bus sides throughout the city."

Police and federal authorities are hoping to make it a continuing program paid for largely through private contributors.

Battaglia has pitched the idea to the Greater Baltimore Committee, a leading business group, in the hope of getting contributions.

Authorities said it is too early to tell how much the program will cost, but they gave a preliminary estimate of about $50,000 annually. A spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee said earlier this week that no decision had been made whether the group would provide money.

First cards designed for free

The first 50,000 cards were designed for free by Sagel and Associates, a Canton printing firm. The cards instruct people with information on illegal guns to call 410-685-GUNS. Citizens can also call 1-800-ATF-GUNS.

Project Disarm is an effort by state and federal agents that targets criminals who have two prior convictions for violent felonies or drug trafficking. Those arrested as part of the program are charged federally, meaning they face tougher sentencing guidelines and have no chance for parole if convicted.

Battaglia said the cards are being handed out because she feels the program isn't well-known to people.

"We've been doing all these prosecutions, but we've never advertised it," Battaglia said. "We want people to know that if you carry a gun in Baltimore and you're not supposed to, you'll go to jail."

Sentences doubled

More than 220 people have been prosecuted in the program, with the average sentence about 6.7 years in prison with no parole, according to federal authorities. In contrast, if the same defendants were convicted in state courts, they would likely have faced only a handgun charge -- which carries a maximum penalty of three years and the possibility of parole.

A study conducted last year of 79 criminals convicted in Project Disarm showed that collectively, the group had 1,158 prior arrests and 395 prior convictions.

Michael Campbell, an ATF agent and spokesman, said federal firearms agents are on a pace to arrest about 80 people this year under Project Disarm.

"People need to know that the federal government will do whatever they can with the violent crime problem here in Baltimore," Campbell said.

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