Smart way to end violence : enforce existing gun laws

No one wants to take the lead in championing an overhaul of Baltimore's policing and prosecution of criminals

October 24, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

IT RAINED on Parris Glendening's parade last week; the governor can blame Attorney General J. Joseph Curran.

Up until then, Mr. Glendening had been receiving waves of positive publicity for his proposal to require gun manufacturers to devise a new technology making it impossible for anyone to fire a handgun except the owner.

It looked like a slam-dunk proposal -- even though the technology for making "smart" guns may be a few years off. On the scale of handgun legislation, this is a proposition gun lobbyists might grudgingly swallow in some amended form.

The governor has been billing his proposal as a dramatic and giant step forward. Mr. Curran's audacious call to outlaw nearly all private ownership of handguns puts the Glendening plan in proper perspective.

More important, Mr. Curran's plan may set the stage for a serious dialogue on the heart of the nation's crime problem: gun violence.

Fearing the gun lobby

Maryland politicians have nibbled at the edges of the gun and crime crisis, afraid to enrage devoted gun owners and the National Rifle Association. Once angered, they can exert enormous pressure on rural and some suburban legislators.

That's one of the reasons the governor has been leery of proposing revolutionary changes in Maryland's gun laws. His effort two years ago to limit handgun sales to one a month amounted to a small but important victory. If he wins his argument on "smart" guns, it would be another modest advance that eventually could prevent accidental shootings, especially by children.

But such steps won't stem gun violence in cities like Baltimore or counties like Prince George's. Other, tougher steps are required.

Mr. Curran's approach stands as an extreme action. Banning private ownership of handguns won't happen; it's an idealistic wish on the attorney general's part.

It could lead, though, to a more focused discussion on how to curb gun violence.

Both mayoral candidates in Baltimore's Nov. 2 general election have latched onto something known as "Project Exile" as a partial answer. Homicides and armed robberies were cut by 50 percent after officials in Richmond, Va., cracked down on gun law violators. Any felon caught with a handgun there faces swift prosecution and mandatory prison time.

It took close cooperation among state, local and federal officials to pull this off. Sadly, the chances of Baltimore copying this approach are slim: The political will is lacking.

Major road block

Baltimore's state's attorney has been an impediment to reforming the city's dysfunctional criminal justice system, and the state's U.S. attorney has been unwilling to participate in a crackdown on handgun violators the way the U.S. attorney did in Richmond.

Meanwhile, the governor is nowhere to be found. He has delegated the quicksand of Baltimore's criminal justice dispute to his lieutenant governor.

In fact, no one wants to take the lead in championing an overhaul of Baltimore's policing and prosecution of criminals.

After Democrat Martin O'Malley wins the Nov. 2 mayoral election -- as he will -- he'll have to act as a champion for this crackdown. He must get widespread support from the community and from political leaders inside and outside Baltimore. He also must get strong cooperation from the city state's attorney, Patricia Jessamy, and the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Lynn Battaglia.

More restrictive gun-ownership laws, as Mr. Curran suggested, would help. Mandatory gun-safety training, with regular refresher courses, should be a no-brainer.

But the best way to cut gun violence is to go after the prime offenders. When they're caught with a handgun in their possession, throw the book at them. Anything to lock them up and get them off the streets for years.

This happens to be what the NRA and conservative Republicans have been urging. But it's not a conservative or liberal issue, nor is it a pro-gun or anti-gun matter. It's about making our streets safe once again. Mr. Curran's radical approach -- taking away all the guns -- might work in an perfect world. But in the America of 1999, "Project Exile" looks like a far more realistic -- and achievable -- response.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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