Panel skeptical of ban on body armor

Police want to keep bulletproof vests away from criminals

March 14, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Police agencies from across the state threw their support yesterday behind a bill to restrict the sale and possession of body armor, a measure that faces equally strong opposition from members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

During yesterday's hearing in Annapolis, skeptical committee members questioned the necessity for the bill and expressed their concern that the proposed law would put an unnecessary burden on law-abiding citizens.

Under the law, it would be illegal for most people to own body armor, or bullet-resistant vests, unless they obtained a permit.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat, asked whether there would be a process for appealing a decision in which someone was denied a permit. Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker wanted to know whether the state would buy body armor from people who now own the equipment.

Col. David B. Mitchell, the state police superintendent, said the process would be similar to getting permits for carrying a concealed weapon and that there were no plans to buy vests from citizens.

Mitchell said the bill is needed to keep body armor out of the hands of criminals. "Frankly, we don't want criminals to have the same advantage that we do," he said. "We want them at a disadvantage."

He said body armor serves to embolden criminals, giving them a sense of invincibility.

Jerel Booker, legislative officer for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said Baltimore police confiscate about 100 pieces of body armor each year. The city's SWAT team has encountered seven incidents in the past five years involving suspects wearing body armor.

The bill, part of Glendening's legislative package, was largely inspired by two incidents involving Baltimore police officers. In April, Officer Kevon M. Gavin was killed when another vehicle slammed into his police cruiser. Eric D. Stennett, who was acquitted of charges stemming from the accident, was wearing body armor at the time of the accident.

Detective David Azur was shot in the chest last summer while wearing a bullet-resistant vest. He survived, suffering a bruise the size of a softball. Glendening used his vest as a prop during a January news conference.

The bill contains exceptions for law enforcement officers, security guards and private detectives, and would allow people who feel their line of work requires body armor to apply for permits.

Under the bill, anyone caught wearing body armor during the commission of a violent crime could be charged with a separate felony and, if convicted, sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined up to $10,000.

Last year, the Baltimore City Council passed a law making it illegal for anyone under age 18 to have body armor. That law, like the governor's, was inspired by Gavin's death.

John Josselyn, who represented the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, spoke against the proposed legislation yesterday, saying it would penalize honest citizens. "This doesn't add to our safety," he said. "It adds to the bureaucracy."

Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Firearms Dealers Association, also said the bill would have a greater effect on law-abiding citizens than on criminals. "You can't show me the first criminal that's going to obey this ban," he said. "I think this is the wrong way to go."

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