City Targets Guns

Mayor outlines initiative to cut back violence by reducing illegal firearms

May 03, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

Contending that Baltimore's struggle against violence needs to refocus on illegal guns, Mayor Sheila Dixon laid out yesterday a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the number of weapons on the city's streets.

"We're going to have to curb the violence in this city by going after these illegal guns," Dixon said. "I don't know how more plain and simple I can make it."

Surrounded by almost 300 sawed-off shotguns, revolvers and semiautomatic handguns seized in April, Dixon proposed re-forming a city police gun unit to trace illegal weapons back to the sellers; requiring city residents convicted of gun offenses to report their addresses to the police - much like the state's sex offender registry; and tracking data on gun arrests, convictions and sentences with a new program dubbed GunStat.

"We all know that the most serious criminals in Baltimore rely on illegal guns to intimidate and harm others," Dixon said.

Referring to the new gun offender registry - which would require approval from the City Council - Dixon said: "This is going to mean some extra work for our police. But we are all in this together."

Dixon insisted that her proposal would not target legal gun owners. "We're not saying that you can't own one," she said.

Ninety-three people have been killed in Baltimore this year - all but 13 from gunshot wounds. Nonfatal shootings have increased, from 176 in 2006 to 233 as of yesterday afternoon.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm pledged that the new plan will "help us stem this wave of violence that is in the city."

"We started off by going after people. We are going after these instruments that they use to commit violence in this city," he said.

As Hamm and Dixon spoke, hundreds of guns - some customized, some well-maintained and others rusty - were displayed on tables in the lobby of the downtown police headquarters. Crime lab technicians had propped rifles and shotguns against the walls. The collection included tiny pistols that could be concealed in a fist and a machine gun with a silencer.

The proposals drew immediate questions from the head of the city's police union, who has criticized understaffing of the department and wondered how much more work would now be handed to officers. "Where did they find the extra police sitting around?" Paul Blair asked. "Where are we going to find these people to do [the tracking]?"

Blair said the city police unit tasked with tracking down sex offenders is already short of officers.

About the new GunStat proposal, he said: "We have budget stat. Crime stat. City stat. How many stats do we need?"

"Somebody has to spend some time putting all of these `stats' together," he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Rife Association did not return calls for comment on Dixon's plan.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell, who is running for mayor, declined to comment on the proposal but said he intends to unveil his own crime strategy soon.

Elements of the mayor's proposal will require changes to city and state laws. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who stood next to Dixon during yesterday's announcement, said that passing the gun registry legislation would be a "significant priority" for the council this year - though it was unclear yesterday what penalties might be imposed for violations.

Dixon said she will also lobby the state General Assembly to stiffen sentences for those who allow guns to enter the black market. At present, the offense is a misdemeanor that carries a five-year maximum prison sentence.

The city police identified six officers to staff the new gun squad, and Hamm said that he has a verbal commitment from the state police to move five troopers to city police headquarters to investigate cases against gun traffickers. The city's squad will be led by Sgt. Richard A. Willard, a 15-year veteran.

Building cases against gun stores or individuals who sell weapons to criminals is tricky and labor-intensive: Police typically have to witness illegal or improper sales.

"Do I have the manpower to do it? I do not," Hamm said. "When I bring a little bit to the table, and [other agencies bring] a little bit to the table, then I have much better control over that."

Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the deputy police commissioner, insisted that it's worthwhile to target the secondary gun market, despite the significant amount of police work that's required and the low penalties currently in place for convictions.

"Doggone right it is worth it," he said. "A huge number of guns are coming to Baltimore through the illegal secondary transfer."

He raised his voice: "There are people with legitimate jobs carrying on their lives, and they seem unaffected by fueling this violence in Baltimore."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said that her office has not received a secondary gun purchase case since the Police Department disbanded its gun unit about five years ago.

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