Dixon, Jessamy want legislators to toughen laws on firearms

General Assembly

January 09, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Baltimore seeks tougher gun laws Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Mayor Sheila Dixon want new legislation to keep people convicted of gun crimes in prison longer and require anyone who has lost a weapon to report the disappearance to police within three days.

Both said they will push for such laws in the General Assembly session that begins today, in an effort to continue the slowing rate of city homicides evident in the latter half of last year, which followed a summer surge. Baltimore ended 2007 with 282 slayings, up from 276 the year before.

Some of the city's legislative proposals are new, such as the penalty for not reporting a lost or stolen gun. Others, such as keeping rifles and other long-barreled guns out of the hands of felons and domestic abusers, have been debated for years and often died in House and Senate committees.

"If these bills pass, people will soon realize that Baltimore and the state of Maryland are the worst places in the world for gun crimes," Dixon said in an interview yesterday. "That's what I want because, in other cities, crime is going down while we have not changed, and we've got to."

Last year, Jessamy and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler worked on anti-gang legislation that passed the General Assembly but in a form different from what they envisioned. Gansler's office has called the final result "watered-down," while Jessamy used harsher words, describing the Maryland Gang Prosecution Act of 2007 as "useless."

Gansler wants to make it easier for prosecutors to define someone as a gang member, strengthen penalties and allow prosecutors to seize gang members' assets.

Together, Jessamy and Gansler also are proposing a statewide task force to establish early intervention and prevention for potential gang members. To do effective prevention, "we need to be together," Jessamy said. "We don't need to all be going in different directions."

Jessamy's office has in previous years sparred with the mayor's office over the best way to fight crime in the city.

She and Gov. Martin O'Malley, when he was mayor, differed on police tactics and strategies, most notably on O'Malley's statistics-driven policy that netted tens of thousands of arrests.

"It's good to have people singing from the same page in the same hymnbook again," Jessamy said of the new administration in City Hall. "It's refreshing."

Dixon also wants to require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns within 72 hours of discovering their disappearance or face misdemeanor criminal charges. The idea is to allow prosecutors to punish people who are careless with their weapons or knowingly loan them out for nefarious purposes.

"All too often we trace guns used in horrible crimes back to owners who claim their guns were stolen," Dixon said.

Dixon said she expects strong opposition, both from advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association and from lawmakers.

Members of the city's General Assembly delegation have warned her of an uphill battle. Stephen Schneider, president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, said making failing to report a missing gun a crime won't curtail shootings.

"The problem is that the people they are targeting, the people who would purposely allow it to get into the wrong hands are not going to care one way or another," Schneider said. "They're not going to report it anyway. There could be a situation where a law-abiding citizen who fails to report the gun is charged while the street hood who used the gun is never caught."

Douglas B. Ludwig, chief of the state's attorney's firearms division, said that administering a "lost or stolen gun registry" would be onerous but worth it if it helps prosecutors send more gun offenders to prison.

"People have a constitutional right to own a firearm, but just like a owning a car, rights come with responsibility," he said. "If your car is stolen, you report it. If you have a gun stolen, you should think to report it."

Dixon also wants so-called "good-time credits" - given to prisoners who share cells, follow the rules, attend classes and work in-house jobs - limited for gun offenders and bail denied to repeat offenders.

If a person has been convicted of a violent crime or felony drug offense, a second conviction for a crime involving a handgun carries a mandatory sentence of five years in prison without parole. That doesn't mean the offender serves all five years. Ludwig said that he has reviewed cases in which the offender was freed in less than three years due to good-time credits.

At the same time, Jessamy said she wants more room to reach plea deals with felons and drug offenders illegally in possession of firearms.

The mandatory sentence, she said, gives defendants no reason to plead guilty. Ludwig said the city has a 700-case backlog of pending firearms cases.

Jessamy also is joining the judiciary in proposing to license and regulate the state's property bond system, in which people use equity in homes or buildings to spring suspects from jail.

The state currently has few mechanisms to catch such fraud - mostly when bondsmen post the same property in multiple cases across several jurisdictions.

"The fraud has been very, very obvious," said Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of the state's district court system.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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