City OKs gun theft reporting

Council adopts measure despite unanswered questions on legality

August 12, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Gun owners in Baltimore whose firearms are stolen would be required to report the theft to police under legislation approved by the City Council yesterday - despite questions about whether the proposal is legal.

Supporters, including Mayor Sheila Dixon, say the bill will help police track stolen weapons used in crimes, but the city's law department has questioned whether Baltimore can legislate gun control, typically a state issue.

In a June memo on the bill, the law department recommended the City Council hold off on advancing the measure until the Maryland attorney general issues an opinion on the bill - but that opinion is not finished.

The City Council approved the measure unanimously with two members absent.

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for both Dixon and the Police Department, said that the mayor intends to sign the bill. He said the mayor may wait to see the attorney general's opinion before acting, but the spokesman would not commit to that.

"The mayor's intention is to sign the bill," Clifford said.

Dixon may sign the bill or send it back to the City Council for revision. If she does not act on the measure by the end of September, it automatically becomes law, according to the city charter.

The mayor has made illegal guns a principal focus of her effort to reduce the number of homicides in Baltimore, roughly 80 percent of which involve a gun. Last year, the City Council and Dixon administration created the nation's second local registry of people convicted of a gun crime.

The General Assembly considered a similar bill to require reporting of thefts this past session, but the legislation did not advance out of committee. Los Angeles, Oakland and Philadelphia have enacted similar measures, according to the Police Department.

"Anything that we do to improve safety, that we clearly have to do on our own, I support," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. "Our action does not preclude the attorney general from making a decision."

City Councilman James B. Kraft, who introduced the bill, did not attend the meeting yesterday and could not be reached for comment. In the past, Kraft has argued that most law-abiding gun owners would already report a theft.

"This is not a bill that should frighten lawful gun owners," the Police Department wrote in its own memo on the bill in June. "It is not about the responsible, accountable gun owner."

New attempts at gun control in Baltimore follow a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which Washington, D.C.'s gun ban was ruled unconstitutional.

Baltimore's law department memo notes that the state typically has exclusive purview over local gun regulations but describes a number of narrow exceptions to that rule. For instance, the attorney general in a 1991 ruling allowed a local law requiring dealers to provide trigger locks when they sell guns.

Officials in the attorney general's office and in Dixon's administration said the formal opinion has been requested and may be ready later this summer.

The council acted on several other bills last night, including:

* Approved an amendment to the city charter to create a cabinet-level Department of General Services, which will have oversight of city-owned buildings and vehicles. The item will be on the ballot for city voters in November.

* Advanced legislation increasing the number of people who sit on the Board of Fire Commissioners from three to five. The bill faces a final vote next month.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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