Baltimore's bullet mania

July 21, 2002

THE GRIEVOUS wounding of 10-year-old Tevin Davis came on an ordinary summer evening along West Fairmount Avenue.

Kids rode their bikes. Parents watched from front stoops. Then came the ominous corner confrontation -- and the gunfire.

Seconds later, a frantic father, bleeding son in his arms, was racing to a nearby emergency room.

"Don't die on me," Tevin's father cried.

Here was an ordinary night in Baltimore, a city in the grip of a gun culture.

The 18-year-old arrested in Tevin's shooting was known, neighbors said, to have a handgun in his basement. A nice young man, they said, but in a gun culture nice can still mean armed. Armed is ordinary.

The proliferation of weapons feeds on itself. Teen-agers carry because so many others in their neighborhood carry. Police seized 3,000 weapons last year.

Young people step into hardware stores to buy bullets for automatic or semi-automatic weapons. One store made single shells available at 12 cents each, but customers -- frequently teen-agers -- were buying bullets by the box, as many as 80 shells in each.

Tevin Montrel Davis was hit by a "stray" bullet. It passed through the back of his neck and plowed through his mouth, knocking out teeth and leaving him paralyzed on the right side, at least temporarily.

On the city's marble steps, or walking home from a convenience store, or on the way to a nightclub, you can take a bullet.

As of Friday, 145 people had been killed in the city this year, three more than last year.

One reason: Consequences for gun law violations are virtually nonexistent. Arrests on gun charges are way up, but only about half of felony gun crimes handled by the state's attorney's elite gun unit resulted in convictions last year. That's a sharp drop from the 63 percent conviction rate in 2000.

More than the severity of punishment, experts say, the certainty of apprehension and conviction turns out to be the most effective anti-gun measures. Without that critical support, the mayor and his health commissioner resort to sting operations at hardware stores.

It's a desperate and important, but almost pathetic, effort.

Because if guns and ammo are easy to get, if the fear of arrest and conviction is not palpable, and if witnesses won't testify, then this is a culture destined to endure.

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