Under fire

August 06, 2002

CARRY A GUN, go to jail.

That's the idea behind Maryland's toughest gun laws, the ones state legislators passed specifically to help Baltimore City get control of gun-toters and the violence they perpetrate. And it's also how things have to work in a city that aspires to reduce the more than 250 murders it endures each year - most the direct result of gun violence.

But Baltimore's criminal justice system is so hobbled by incompetence and lack of cooperation, so ineffectual in the pursuit of tough sentences (or any sentences) for people caught with illegal weapons, that any hope of discouraging the city's raging gun culture is the most unrealistic kind of wishful thinking.

Carry a gun, go to jail?

Not in this city.

In a typical month this year, the elite FIVE unit of city prosecutors (created by State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to deal with gun crimes) has won convictions in just over half the gun cases it handled in city gun court and circuit court. In some months, it won convictions in less than a third.

FIVE's record this year on Maryland's strictest gun law (passed two years ago to provide mandatory five-year sentences for any felon caught with a gun) also fails to impress: 14 convictions in 34 cases.

These dismal numbers accumulate to the state's attorney's bottom line, but the responsibility for them must be shouldered across the criminal justice system.

Cases often crumble because police have botched arrests or - amazingly - violated basic search and seizure protocols. Sometimes, officers fail to collect enough evidence for conviction, and in far too many instances, they don't show up at hearings or trials.

Even when the cases go well and convictions are won, judges sometimes reduce sentences.

The result of this bungling is reflected daily on the city's streets. As of last Sunday at midnight, there had been 365 shootings in Baltimore this year. And those are the nonfatal ones; the number doesn't include the more than 150 people who have been shot to death.

If this simple math doesn't indicate an overwhelming need for fundamental change in the system, what will?

Certainly, it should move Thomas M. DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, to reconsider his stand-offish position on gun crimes.

In a letter to The Sun on Sunday, he restated his belief that most gun crimes should be handled by local authorities in state courts, because Maryland's law provides for stiffer penalties than federal law does.

In theory, he's right. Maryland has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation. But in practice, his assessment is dead wrong, because so many criminals beat state charges and walk free. State gun laws are virtually meaningless in Baltimore, because the system can't make them stick.

Criminals know that, which is why they strap on guns as thoughtlessly as most people pull on a pair of socks each morning.

Mr. DiBiagio could be an important ally in altering that mindset. Although the state's failings are technically not his responsibility, a wave of tough federal sentences for routine gun crimes would send a clear message and could save lives.

But the state system isn't off the hook, either. For far too long, its ineffectiveness has made it an accomplice to the growth of the city's gun culture rather than a deterrent.

Change - in the system's practices across a wide spectrum of agencies - cannot come soon enough.

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