It's past the time for a crackdown on guns

Project Exile: Baltimore must come up with its own plan, but Richmond's model is compelling.

Getting away with MURDER

February 06, 2000

MARYLAND judges seem unwilling or unable to grasp this reality: a gun in the hands of a criminal is a murder or armed robbery waiting to happen.

When judges fail to use the sanctions available to them, they are licensing a murderous traffic that rends the fabric of a community. Taxpayers flee toward safety in the suburbs. With weapons at hand, young men kill each other -- and bystanders -- to acquire money, maintain respect or to protect turf.

Even when guns are used in the commission of brutal crimes, a recent article by The Sun's Caitlin Francke shows, some judges shy away from a Maryland law that requires a five-year, no-parole sentence.

The epidemic of gun crimes and light sentences meted out to those who are convicted speak to a culture -- a mix that produces 300-plus murders a year in Baltimore, at least two-thirds of them committed with guns.

Baltimore tacitly accepts this death march by inaction -- don't explain away as "bad boys shooting other bad boys."

Saving 360 souls

Had Baltimore found the nerve to confront gun crime in 1997 as aggressively as did authorities in Richmond, 360 murders might have been avoided here.

The arithmetic is simple:

Richmond's Project Exile cut the murder rate there by 40 percent. A similar reduction in Baltimore would have saved 40 percent of the 900 souls lost in Baltimore in the last three years.

Precise numbers, though, are not the point. At the moment, using the Richmond model, New Orleans and Rochester among U.S. cities are attempting to disarm the gun carrying populace, to change the culture, to re-assert basic values of life and liberty.

Baltimore remains entrapped by sniping among elements of the criminal justice system, debates about resources and other concerns that block unified response.

In Richmond, U.S. Attorney Helen F. Fahey stepped in, setting aside her office's usual array of complex economic crimes to concentrate on the plague of gun violence. The idea was to use the tough sentences available under federal law -- and the federal prison system -- to literally "exile" convicted offenders from the neighborhoods they were terrorizing.

Lynn Battaglia, the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, has used the same laws over five years to prosecute 275 defendants, winning for them an average sentence of 7.8 years in prison.

Ms. Battaglia's program, called Project Disarm, parallels the Exile effort. Federal prosecutors here say they have exiled many defendants who had been left to endanger the city after numerous arrests. Surely that result is welcome. But it needs to be comprehensive.

If state officials continue to dither, Ms. Battaglia must step in as her counterpart did in Virginia. Otherwise, the laws are meaningless. She has the power. She shouldn't hesitate to use it. New fear of strong enforcement and harsh penalty is needed on the streets of Baltimore -- fully justified by the level of violence on those streets.

In Richmond, the Exile message can be found on billboards throughout the city and on calling cards distributed by Richmond police: "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in Federal Prison." A city bus, all black with white lettering, takes the message along seven different routes, a different one each day. On the street, it's called "the death bus."

Reinforced message

The message is underscored by television commercials as well. One shows a child drawing pictures: "Me," "My Mommy" and "My Daddy," the latter represented by the telltale outline chalked on the street by police.

Drug dealers have come to know everything about Exile. They know defendants don't get bail. They know sentences average 57 months but can run to infinity depending on previous record and the circumstances of the crime. In federal courts, the terms can be reduced -- if the defendant cooperates with information about other cases. A Virginia state version of the Exile law, in effect since last July, is less flexible than the federal law. Judges have no choice but to impose its mandatory terms.

Mere possession can lead to long sentences. The gun need not have been used. The theory: If a gun is present, it will be used.

Before Exile, as in Baltimore today, a gun possession charge in Richmond could be disposed of as the most minor of crimes. Richmond's problem in 1997 was worse than Baltimore's if that is imaginable: more murders per capita, a weaker state law, less outcry.

Folklore has it that when you put your kids to bed in Richmond three years ago, you thought about putting them in the bathtub to protect them from stray bullets. Babies have been shot and killed here, too.

Baltimore need not copy Richmond's plan. But criminal justice authorities should recognize the need to shock the current system out of its doldrums.

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