Curbing gun violence

September 15, 2005

UNITED STATES Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein couldn't have said it more plainly: More prosecutors assigned to federal firearms cases in Baltimore will mean more prosecutions of such crimes. His office also will be able to spend more time on federal investigations of violent Baltimore criminals, he says.

That should be a win for the city, but Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is outraged over a proposal to use city federal grant dollars to fund two new special prosecutors in Mr. Rosenstein's office instead of aiding her staff, which handles the bulk of gun crime cases in Baltimore. Mrs. Jessamy's threat to sever her office's relationship with federal prosecutors on gun-crime cases won't benefit her hard-working lawyers or, more to the point, the citizens of Baltimore.

Both she and Mr. Rosenstein have said their relationship has been a good one, with her lawyers referring cases eligible for tougher federal sentences to the U.S. attorney's office. Her pique over the matter reflects the tension between City Hall and Mrs. Jessamy. She says she views the decision to fund the federal prosecutors as a "slight" to her staff, but Mrs. Jessamy has personalized the dispute needlessly. She, better than anyone, knows that the nature and extent of the violence in Baltimore require a stronger federal commitment on gun cases.

In a city with a murder rate that disproportionately exceeds its size and where drug-related shootings have left legions disabled, aggressive prosecution of federal gun crimes shouldn't be a matter of debate. Every tool at law enforcement's command should be used to curb this violence that has ensnared kids as young as 13.

If giving Mr. Rosenstein $200,000 in city grant funds for a year sharpens his office's focus on locking up Baltimore gun felons, the shift in dollars would be worth the investment. It's only a year's commitment, not enough time to launch and conclude substantive investigations, but long enough to pursue felons with more than one gun crime conviction.

Of course, two more federal prosecutors on the job is no panacea. Police have to identify the right criminals and gather solid evidence against repeat offenders; their cases have to withstand federal scrutiny and that means lawful arrests, constitutional searches and witnesses who show up. A more intense federal focus on gun crime could benefit Mrs. Jessamy's staff if the caliber of police cases improves.

The state's attorney, who has been instrumental in reconvening a working group of area law enforcement officials, should use her influence to ensure that the right pool of violent, repeat offenders is targeted for federal gun prosecution. Coordination and cooperation will be critical to the strategy's success - but the measure of success will be fewer gun crimes.

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