U.S. Attorney's weak stance on guns

Fatal message: Telling shooters they'll get another opportunity to kill undercuts law enforcement.

January 07, 2002

SO U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has stepped into the vortex of killing known as Baltimore and announced - as publicly as he can - that he'd like to stand above the battleground rather than get knee-deep in it.

Forget about tough enforcement of federal gun laws, which could land miscreants in jail for five years just for carrying. Mr. DiBiagio has no time for that.

He's after drug kingpins and "national and international" drug networks. Also, he said in an interview, he'll make gun violence secondary on his agenda to what Mayor Martin O'Malley refers to as caviar offenses: white-collar crime and political corruption. As if the real criminals in Baltimore work at City Hall, rather than run the streets with machine guns and rifles.

Mr. DiBiagio makes this pronouncement even as his boss, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, has told him to make gun violence a priority, second only to the national war on terrorism. He asserts his agenda even as Baltimore closes the books on a year in which hundreds of gun violations were committed, and more than 250 people were murdered.

Mr. DiBiagio's policies seem distracted at best and negligent at worst in the context of the city's high body count.

If Mr. DiBiagio follows through on his intentions, he'll be badly undercutting Mayor O'Malley's anti-homicide campaign, and making Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' job a lot harder.

The lessons of Project Exile in Richmond, Va., seem sadly lost on Mr. DiBiagio.

There, experts say, the automatic five-year federal sentence for carrying a gun is acting as a deterrent to weapons violations and other crimes.

It's about cracking down on smaller crimes to prevent the opportunity for more lethal ones. The program has done as much to change the culture there as get gun-toters off the streets.

Would-be criminals know the score with Project Exile. They know if you get caught carrying, you're going away for a long time. Word is all over the streets about the program; police hand out little business cards with Project Exile written on the front and an explanation of the penalties on the back. In its first few years, the program reduced murders in Richmond by 40 percent.

In Baltimore, our most basic problem is this: Guns permeate the city. Powerful weapons come out on the street every day in the hands of criminals willing to use them for almost any reason.

More than 100 people were charged with firing weapons on New Year's Eve as if they were popping champagne corks.

The city is beset by a culture of gun-carrying that defies most local and state efforts to change it.

It's true that most of the responsibility for curbing that problem lies with the state. But state courts are overwhelmed by the number of gun cases they get each year, and state prisons are already overcrowded with violent offenders.

A federal effort to crack down on gun violations would help relieve some of the pressure on state courts. And it might also go a long way toward disabusing criminals of their affinity for carrying weapons.

Federal help in this matter made a difference in Richmond; it can work in Baltimore, too. Mr. DiBiagio just has to get on board.

On a more positive note, Mr. DiBiagio has also stated his intentions to work closely with Commissioner Norris and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. And there's nothing wrong with his ideas to help reduce Baltimore crime by prosecuting complex drug conspiracy cases.

But Mr. DiBiagio's decision to de-emphasize gun prosecutions at the federal level removes a powerful weapon from the law enforcement arsenal.

Sending gun-toters the message that the feds are taking a pass on their crime seems almost incomprehensible.

We hope Mr. DiBiagio reconsiders - for the sake of the people in the jurisdiction he is now sworn to help protect.

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