Anti-gun effort here undermined by PR gap

Project Disarm: Maryland's effort to rid the streets of illegal guns needs a big publicity push.

Getting Away With Murder

February 14, 2000

LIKE a politician or a dishwashing detergent, the U.S. Attorney's Project Disarm needs name recognition.

It needs to be aggressively sold. It needs to invade the criminal consciousness of Baltimore with its message of fear: "Carry a gun. Got to jail."

The project itself needs to be more universally deployed -- and to become a household name, synonymous with long prison terms in remote places.

More criminals -- and more law-abiding citizens -- must know about Disarm's impressive sentencing results under tough federal laws: an average of 7.8 years in jail for each of 275 cases it has successfully prosecuted over the last five years.

This record is so impressive it cries out for expansion -- and for an identity as universal as Coke's but less refreshing.

With a murder rate of 300-plus per year, Baltimore needs an anti-gun initiative that is comprehensive, disarming all of its gun-addicted street thugs. It must nail even more offenders, letting none plead out, jailing them remorselessly.

Two diverging objectives will be served by such an effort: criminals will be less likely to carry guns, knowing that mere possession will send them to jail if they have criminal records. And the soaring murder rate will be begin to spiral downward, because fewer gun-toting thugs will be walking city streets.

U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia's prosecutors have done well with the cases they've brought so far. But they must bring more -- or recruit the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office to join them.

Judges must sign on enthusiastically, resisting whatever temptations exist to ignore the big sentences available under Maryland law.

To be fully effective, Disarm needs the kind of recognition now accorded Project Exile, a similar program claiming dramatic successes in Richmond, Va. Exile packs a media punch unseen so far in Maryland. Exile's message screams out from billboards, paid ads in magazines and most important on radio and television.

It's expensive. But the public relations success bespeaks a critical dimension of the effort in Richmond: community involvement, a widespread sense that law enforcement needs the backing of every segment of the city.

In Richmond, a remarkable coalition of businesses, lawyers and civic groups raised money to put the Exile message in front of everyone.

"The boat was sinking," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Comey. "Everyone needed to bail."

The National Rifle Association contributed $100,000 to the campaign. Sarah Brady of Handgun Alert endorsed it.

The Martin Agency, a respected advertising firm in Richmond, produced the spots without charge. Fox 35, a Richmond TV station, contributed $100,000 in air time.

The Retail Merchants Association of Richmond, city government and the Greater Richmond Partnership raised more than $400,000 to promote a program that sends gun violators to jail for half their lives.

In one of the TV ads running in Richmond, a policeman reads Exile's message. He is wearing a recording device and the conversation is from an actual arrest.

"Do you have a gun on you?" the cop says.

"Yes," the man says.

"Do you read the papers at all?"

"No, I don't."

"Do you know if the feds take your case it's a five-year bid (sentence)?"

No response.

"You gotta be honest with me," the policeman says.

"I'm trying to be honest. I don't want to go to jail." Surely, it was too late for this man at this point. For everyone else, the message was clear: "Carry a gun. Go to jail."

That message needs to be etched into the criminal mind in Baltimore.

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