Baltimore County police have set up a tip line to help get illegal weapons off the streets and out of the hands of criminals.
The tip line - 410-887-GUNS - is similar to one established last year in Baltimore City. Residents can call to report someone who has an illegal firearm. The Police Department will pay tipsters $50 or more for information that leads to an arrest.
The county's tip line, which began operating this week, was created with a $72,000 grant from Maryland State Police. The grant will pay for the hot line and follow-up investigations.
"The primary concern is getting guns - illegal guns - off the streets," said Bill Toohey, a police spokesman.
Police note that last year in the county, handguns were used to commit 16 homicides, 15 rapes, 357 aggravated assaults and 662 robberies.
It is illegal to own a handgun if a person is a felon or younger than age 21. It is also is illegal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
Gun tip lines, which have sprouted up nationwide, concern some defense lawyers who fear they give police an excuse to stop and search someone based on tips from people who may receive cash rewards for the information.
"Getting guns off the street seems to be a primary concern as opposed to protecting citizens' rights," said criminal defense attorney Jack B. Rubin. "The tip lines can create problems."
County police say, however, that people need not worry about overaggressive policing based on anonymous tips. Toohey said all tips will first be thoroughly investigated, and arrests will be made only after detectives gather enough independent evidence to file charges.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March concluded police cannot search someone for a gun based on an anonymous tip that a person is armed "without more information of criminal activity."
The approach officers must take when investigating anonymous tips became apparent in September last year in Baltimore City when police made their first arrest based on a city hot-line tip.
In that case, police got a tip that someone was armed with a rifle. When police responded, they found a .22-caliber rifle hidden in a trash bag on a street in East Baltimore.
But police could not charge the man with possessing the gun, because the tipster wanted to remain anonymous and therefore could not be called or named in a police report as a witness.
Instead of weapons charges, police charged the man with drug possession after the officer who responded to the call allegedly saw him smoking marijuana.
Still, city police at the time said the tip line was a success because they got an arrest. The city's gun-tip line was also established with a grant from state police.