City firearm seizures drop 25 percent

October 04, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Despite an increased emphasis on seizing illegal firearms, Baltimore police have taken about 25 percent fewer guns off the street this year and are making fewer gun arrests.

City law enforcement officials said they were unsure how to account for the decline, which has police on pace to recover far fewer illegal guns than in previous years, but were in agreement that it's probably not because there are significantly fewer guns on the streets. Instead, they said it is more likely that criminals are getting the message not to carry guns in public, which could be a factor in this year's drops in homicides and nonfatal shootings.

"The sentiment is that there is an acknowledgment amongst criminals in particular that they can't be just walking around with illegal weapons," said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Police Department and Mayor Sheila Dixon. "They're still out there, but there are fewer people walking around with a gun tucked under their waistband or under the driver's seat of a car."

Police had recovered about 2,750 guns at this point last year, even though the push to crack down on illegal guns did not begin in earnest until late May, after Dixon unveiled a new crime-fighting strategy. With the philosophy in place for over a year, police have seized 2,104 guns this year.

If that pace holds up, police will have recovered the smallest number of guns since 2004. According to department statistics, police have seized an average of 3,425 illegal firearms annually over the past seven years, before gun seizures were made a priority.

Gun arrests have fallen more significantly this year, from 1,322 arrests with gun charges at this time last year to 920 this year, a drop of about a third.

Officials say it may be time for police to pursue new strategies to get guns off the streets.

"The enforcement has had an impact. Now the department needs to figure out its next steps," said Sheryl Goldstein, the director of the mayor's council on criminal justice.

At a news conference last year, surrounded by 300 sawed-off shotguns, revolvers and semiautomatic handguns, Dixon announced a sweeping plan to focus on illegal guns.

She called for re-forming a city police gun unit to trace illegal weapons to sellers, requiring city residents convicted of gun offenses to report their addresses to the police and tracking data on gun arrests, convictions and sentences with a new program called GunStat.

Last month, Dixon signed a new city law requiring gun owners to notify police when their weapons are lost or stolen, a tool that police believe may help catch people selling guns on the street who later claim that the weapons were stolen.

A year ago, a higher percentage of guns were coming through street seizures and traffic stops. But this year, police are seeing more weapons recovered through search warrants on buildings and homes as word spreads that police are on the lookout for firearms, Clifford said.

Homicides and shootings have fallen this year, with the city on pace to record the fewest killings since the mid-1980s. Though shootings have picked up since June, they are still down about 15 percent from last year. Some of the city's traditionally most violent areas, such as the Eastern District, are experiencing some of the largest drops.

Daniel Webster, an associate professor and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said it will take some time before the city sees significant changes in gun availability. But he said he was struck by the similarities between the reduction in gun crimes and gun seizures.

"Shootings and homicides occur in spur-of-the-moment exchanges - somebody ends up dead, mostly because it just happened to be that at the time somebody got miffed, that they had a gun right with them," Webster said. "If fewer of those guns are out in circulation, people are still doing things to disrespect each other but will walk away from those incidents."

Clifford said those gun-related reductions are an indication that the mayor's public safety plan is working.

"Gun seizures are down, but so is gun violence. All the indicators are there that the strategy is" paying off, he said.

The Gun Trace Task Force has seized nearly 450 guns this year and made 72 arrests, and more than 340 individuals have been identified as eligible for the Gun Offender Registry, a database similar to the state sex offender registry.

In addition to the various gun initiatives, suspects charged with gun crimes are receiving higher bail amounts. From May to August 2008, nearly 6 out of every 10 defendants were held without bail and only 8 percent received a bail below $100,000.

"People do pay attention to those things," Clifford said.

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