Vowing to go after "gun bangers," Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.pledged yesterday to strictly enforce the state's gun laws and work with federal prosecutors to ensure that felons who carry guns go to prison for at least five years with no chance for parole.
"When I am elected governor, the word goes out to criminals," Ehrlich said while standing on the steps of the Eastern District police headquarters in Baltimore surrounded by police and state's attorneys. "Modify your behavior, don't carry a gun on the street because the rules have changed in Baltimore and in the state."
Ehrlich -- who was endorsed yesterday by the Montgomery County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police -- also said he would reverse Gov. Parris N. Glendening's policy of refusing to pardon people who have been sentenced to life in prison, except in cases of extreme illness. Instead, Ehrlich said, he would review each case to determine if the prisoner has reformed.
The backbone of Ehrlich's crime-fighting platform is implementing Project Exile, a program where convicted felons caught carrying a gun face punishment in the federal court system, where they often receive longer sentences and get sent to prison far away from home.
The program, supported by the National Rifle Association and adopted in several states, began in Richmond, Va., in 1997, and that city has seen a 40 percent reduction in gun crime since then.
Some Baltimore community leaders have shown an interest in bringing the program to the city, but U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has refused, standing by his own plan for fighting violent crimes.
Even if Ehrlich fails to bring the federal program here, he said yesterday, he would start a state version in which felons convicted of carrying a gun would be sent to state prison for five years. And, unlike current law, their sentences could not be reduced by a three-judge panel.
Democrats yesterday said the programs Ehrlich proposed have been implemented by Glendening and Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2000 establishing a mandatory five-year sentence for those convicted of felonies or a violent crime. A three-judge panel, however, can modify that sentence. Townsend's campaign also questioned how Ehrlich will implement Project Exile without DiBiagio's support.
"Kathleen Kennedy Townsend supports aggressive punishment for criminals who use guns," said Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm. "She would do more than the current Republican U.S. attorney is doing."
Townsend, who oversees the state's criminal justice programs, has supported Operation Safe Neighborhoods, which strives to reduce gun violence in the city through deterrence and stepped-up prosecution.
In Park Heights, shootings and homicides dropped 66 percent from 1999 to 2000 after the program was implemented there. Overall, gun-related gun crime in the state has dropped 43 percent since Townsend took office in 1995.
Townsend also proposed expanding the powers of a state handgun review board to include semiautomatic guns.
Ehrlich said he is reluctant to enact new gun-control laws and is not convinced that the 300 current laws have proven to be effective -- a stance backed by the president of the Montgomery County FOP lodge 35.
The unions representing Baltimore-Washington International and Martin State airports' firefighters and the state fire marshals also endorsed Ehrlich yesterday.
Late yesterday evening, Democrat William H. Murphy Jr., lawyer and former judge, endorsed Ehrlich at a Democrats for Ehrlich fund-raiser in Baltimore.