Michael R. Hunter Jr. pleaded guilty to having a .22-caliber revolver loaded with five bullets tucked in his waistband while walking along a city street on the evening of Oct. 25. Two Baltimore police officers saw him ditch the weapon in an alley near Greenmount Avenue.
The 19-year-old would have seemed the perfect candidate for one of the programs touted by state and federal prosecutors, who relentlessly promise that getting caught with a gun means being thrown in prison for five years without the possibility of parole.
Had that happened, Hunter would've been in a prison cell April 8, when police allege that he and a friend burst into a Waverly carryout, robbed a patron of $13 and fatally shot a 72-year-old man who had just ordered a pork and noodle dinner.
But Hunter was walking the streets, on probation, and not in prison.
Moments after cops retrieved the revolver from the alley in October and slapped on the cuffs, Hunter, according to court charging documents, blurted out, "That gun doesn't even work; it is missing a pin."
State law says it's not a crime to possess a broken handgun, according to the judge in the case and city prosecutors. Police said it was indeed missing a pin that holds the cylinder in place. Prosecutors dropped the handgun possession charge, ending any hope of taking Hunter off the streets for five years.
District Court Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone found Hunter guilty of illegally possessing a firearm.
Isn't a firearm a handgun?
Well, yes and no.
Handguns are firearms. Other guns are firearms, too. Firearms include everything from starter pistols to rifles, shotguns to assault weapons. And while a handgun has to be operable for someone to possess it illegally, a firearm can be illegal regardless of whether it can be fired.
But an illegal-firearm charge doesn't carry the same stiff sanctions as an illegal-handgun charge.
Prosecutors asked Holt-Stone to sentence Hunter to two years in jail, with 21 months suspended.
The judge gave him two years, suspending 22 months. "I basically gave what the state asked," she told me in an interview
She noted that Hunter had a job, was working toward his high school equivalency degree and had no prior convictions but for a minor drug case as a juvenile.
Arrested in October, Hunter walked out of jail in December after paying $37.50 in court costs, and having served his time awaiting trial.
Police said that four months later, on April 8, Hunter and an accomplice shot and killed Charles Bowman, a Vietnam War veteran and security guard at the Afro American newspaper, at the Waverly carryout.
To a skeptical public all too accustomed to reading about defendants repeatedly skirting the system, law enforcement's tough-on-crime rhetoric doesn't match reality. Authorities brag about ridding the streets of guns — and then a young man with a gun effectively bypasses the very sanctions officials are so eager to promote.
All because of a missing pin.
We've all been led to believe that when a cop catches you with an illegal gun, you're going to prison and not getting out for a while. The feds promote Project Exile. The state has the F.I.V.E. Unit. The city's top cop has made "bad guys with guns" his theme and catch-phrase.
The plain truth is that not every gun charge ends with a gunman in prison for five years, even though the billboards the feds put up around the city naming recently convicted felons seem to indicate otherwise.
In Baltimore, the state's attorney's office says that its F.I.V.E. Unit targeting gun offenders got 172 people to plead guilty; another 53 people were found guilty by juries or judges. Of them, 113 were sentenced to the mandatory five-year prison term, and another 58 got 10 years. One person had his charges downgraded and got less than five years.
Another 85 suspects were found not guilty, and charges against another 117 were dropped. Other cases were transferred to federal jurisdiction, abated by death or by other means.
The gun law that freed Hunter from harsh penalties makes sense if you're a dealer carrying a bag of broken gun parts to a repair shop. It doesn't make sense if you are walking around the city with a loaded albeit broken gun stuffed down your pants. (If you threaten someone with a handgun, broken or not, you could be charged with using a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence.)
Hunter's arrest in the slaying, along with that of 18-year-old Troy Taylor, both of whom face first-degree murder, armed robbery and many other charges, have prompted yet another painful examination of criminal records.
And if there is ever a broken record in Baltimore, this is it.
Both teens have been arrested, charged and sometimes convicted in numerous crimes, ranging from armed carjacking to trespassing, and avoided serious prison time. I've written this sentence so many times over the past 15 years that I've assigned it to a save-recall key on my computer.