Health chief, police seize bullets in raid

Beilenson used authority to initiate sting operation

July 12, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

In an extraordinary use of his authority to protect the public health, Baltimore's health commissioner teamed with police this week to seize 30 boxes of ammunition and briefly padlock a west-side hardware store that police said illegally sold bullets to minors.

City officials said they believe the raid on Green's Paint and Hardware, in the 1900 block of W. Lafayette Ave., is the first time a health commissioner has used such authority to target a growing public health threat: juvenile gun violence.

"It's the first time I ever saw it," Col. Robert M. Stanton, commander of the criminal investigation division, said of the sting operation initiated by Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner. "This was his baby. All we did was facilitate it."

About 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, city health authorities and police raided the store after a monthlong investigation and arrested Carl Rogers, 39, who was charged with three counts of illegally selling ammunition to a minor.

On three separate occasions -- once in June and twice this month -- police sent a 16-year-old into the store to buy bullets. Each time, police said, Rogers sold ammunition to the teen-ager who had made it clear he was underage.

The final sale to the teen-ager, which police said they videotaped, occurred about three hours before the raid. After the raid, police recovered the $20 bill used to make the purchase in addition to 30 boxes of ammunition of various calibers, some with labels indicating prices for single-bullet sales.

Police said the owner of the store denied that Rogers, of the 1900 block of W. Lafayette Ave., was an employee, although his picture was on the store wall as "Employee of the Month."

According to property records, the store is owned by Morris and Evelyn Green. A message left for Morris Green was not returned last night.

"Here's a guy who lives in the community and he's contributing to the problem, probably without the knowledge of the owner," Stanton said of Rogers. "The store conducting the sales was an adverse effect on the health of the community."

Police said they sent underage buyers into other hardware stores and gun shops, but those businesses refused to sell to the minors.

Since January, there have been eight shootings and five homicides within two blocks of the store, police said. City officials said the shootings represent a 200 percent increase for the area compared with the same time period last year.

Police have not traced any of the ammunition sold at the store to this year's violence.

Beilenson, who attended the raid, used his authority to temporarily close the store.

The owners were then called to a Health Department hearing Wednesday, where they were given two options: Cease selling ammunition, or keep a detailed log with copies of ammunition sales receipts and photocopies of the buyers' age-verifying identification.

The owners agreed to the latter option and reopened later Wednesday.

Beilenson said the idea for the sting operation came from meetings with officials at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, where they discussed ways to reduce juvenile homicide.

Under state law, ammunition cannot be sold to anyone younger than 21, and Beilenson said he saw that as an "opening" for him to use his authority as health commissioner to reduce a public health problem.

"The health commissioner has the power to abate any public health threat," Beilenson said of juvenile gun violence. "This is a huge threat, and hardware stores are major sellers of ammunition."

Beilenson went to Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris with the idea and, after several weeks of planning, the sting took place.

This week, Mayor Martin O'Malley expressed concern about the recent spike in juvenile homicides, saying he did not want Baltimore to be the "capital of juvenile murder in America."

Sixteen youths were killed during the first six months of the year -- almost double the nine killed during the same period last year. In 2000, eight juveniles were killed from January through June.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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