Armed and dangerous

Our view: Criminals with illegal guns aren't just a problem for Baltimore City

November 15, 2010

Here's a sobering statistic: Nearly half the people arrested and convicted in Baltimore City for violent crimes such as murder and armed robbery had previous convictions for handgun offenses. Yet the sentences they received for illegal gun possession didn't deter them. Many were back on the streets within a matter of weeks after being released, free to commit more mayhem.

The juvenile offender convicted of murdering former City Councilman Ken Harris in 2008, for example, had served fewer than three months in jail for a handgun violation before he fatally shot Mr. Harris less than six weeks after his release. There are hundreds of cases where victims might still be alive if their killers had remained locked up.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has seen the toll the revolving door for gun offenders takes on crime victims and says it has to stop. Last week she unveiled a plan to lobby lawmakers to stiffen the penalties for illegal gun possession by making it a felony (it's currently classified as a misdemeanor) with a mandatory minimum sentence of 18 months up to a maximum of 10 years in prison.

State lawmakers considered a similar proposal last year, but the effort, which was introduced after the General Assembly session had already begun, died in the House Judiciary Committee. This time, the mayor has vowed to start early in the hope of building momentum for a bill that would put some spine into Maryland's gun laws.

If the measure is to have any hope of being enacted, Ms. Rawlings-Blake is going to have to convince lawmakers in Annapolis that illegal guns aren't just a problem for Baltimore City. To that end, her staff has begun reaching out to officials in Prince George's County and other parts of the state, as well as to local community groups and neighborhood associations. As the campaign gears up, city officials will be taking advantage of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the word, as well as videotaped testimonials posted on YouTube from people across the state.

Though violent crime has been going down in the city over the last three years, there are still far too many shootings and killings committed by criminals who received the equivalent of a slap on the wrist the first time they were caught carrying loaded illegal firearms. We expect incoming city state's attorney Gregg Bernstein — who campaigned on a promise to take a tougher line toward the city's violent repeat offenders — to fully support the mayor and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III in making their case in Annapolis.

Given the tragic loss of life that could be prevented by keeping gun offenders locked up longer, a minimum sentence of 18 months for violators is a reasonable and appropriate penalty for carrying a loaded, illegal firearm, particularly since half those arrested go on to commit other crimes of violence. It may not be easy convincing legislators that tougher gun laws will save lives, but Ms. Rawlings-Blake should try anyway, simply because it's the right thing to do.

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