Bag the bullets or return to jail

February 21, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Attention, Maryland felons: Here's some news you can use - it's against federal law for you to possess bullets. You can't have a gun, of course, but you knew that already. Did you also know that, under federal law, you can go to prison for up to 15 years if you're found to be packing ammo?

I mentioned it because it's highly likely no one at the Division of Correction took the time to go over this with you before your release.

Or maybe you weren't paying attention during the warden's lecture on how to avoid returning to the good ole DOC.

So consider this a public service message, courtesy of Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale Rasin.

Rasin recently had before her Steven Morton, a 30-something fellow from Harford County with a criminal record, mostly drug-possession charges. In 2006, Morton acquired a handgun for $100. It was an illegal purchase and it was illegal for Morton, being a felon, to possess the gun.

Of course, the police didn't know he had the gun until the fall of 2006.

That's when Morton went to a Wal-Mart to buy a box of bullets.

Maryland law requires a background check for men and women who want to buy a gun, but not so for what goes inside.

"No background check required for ammo purchases," confirms Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Felons are walking right up to the counter and buying all they want or need."

One day last summer, I was standing on Harford Road in Parkville, feeding a parking meter, when a guy approached, a little out of breath and in a hurry for information. He was young, dressed in a T-shirt and black jeans. "Do you know where I go to buy bullets?" he asked.

I'd never been asked this question before, but the answer was easy. I pointed to the gun shop at the corner and, in the next instant, I had one of those creepy thoughts: Did I just aid and abet a crime-in-the-making? I know: ugly, unfair assumption. But the guy was young and in a hurry, and he didn't seem to know his way around Parkville, and I'm human and I live in Baltimore, with all its gun violence, and so I think the speculation is understandable.

Still, what criminal goes into a gun shop to buy bullets?

Apparently, it happens.

But there's a catch.

Apparently, some retailers, such as Wal-Mart, ask customers to furnish contact information and show a photo ID when they buy ammunition. The retailers share this information with local police or agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The sellers of ammo are not required to maintain lists of purchasers or share them with authorities. It's all done voluntarily.

The ATF runs background checks on those who buy ammunition and, should they stumble across felons, they go after them to see if they're packing a firearm.

If you've been convicted of almost anything in state or federal court, and you have bullets, you go to federal prison.

The feds can send you away for 15 years.

This Steve Morton was facing that penalty as a result of going to Wal-Mart and buying ammo.

He's lucky the case was moved to state court, where Morton pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a handgun. Rasin sentenced him to the mandatory five years in state prison. She says Morton was shocked that the purchase of a box of bullets could send him back indoors for so long.

The case raises this question: Why not require criminal background checks for the purchase of ammunition? At the least, Wal-Mart should put up a sign at the sales counter: "It is a federal crime to be a felon in possession of bullets. If you've done time, don't even think about buying them from us."

It might hurt sales, but it could also prevent a crime - or at least slow a bad guy down.

"If the record checks were done pre-sale and people with records were screened out, we would be preventing the commission of the crime of felon-in-possession," Rasin says.

She thinks the DOC and the Department of Parole and Probation need to do what the feds have been doing for the last couple of years and give paroled felons full warning about the consequences of getting their hands on guns and bullets.

The Morton case was hardly the first time the feds had traced the purchase of ammunition to a convicted felon.

In January 2006, Baltimore detectives got the ammunition sales logs at the Wal-Mart on Port Covington Drive and checked it against criminal records. That led them to Donta Tyrone Gillie, who had multiple drug convictions in Maryland.

In searching Gillie's house in the 1200 block of Madison Ave., cops found three boxes of .25-caliber ammo, a handgun, a Beretta .25-caliber, semiautomatic handgun with a tan holster and a magazine with eight .25-caliber cartridges. According to the U.S. attorney's office, Gillie told the officers that he paid $40 for the handgun for his personal protection and purchased the ammunition to celebrate New Year's Eve.

A federal judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

You have been forewarned, Maryland felons. My job is finished here.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Drug dealers, former drug dealers and others with criminal records can obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting columnist Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com. Additional information about job placement programs for ex-offenders is online at baltimoresun.com.

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