In gun control debate, no easy fixes to Baltimore street violence

Complex issue of how guns get into hands of criminals proves difficult to solve

  • Baltimore police display more than 70 illegal firearms that they seized over the summer.
Baltimore police display more than 70 illegal firearms that… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
January 26, 2013|By Justin George and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country — and Baltimore's are even stricter — yet the city continues to struggle with rampant gun violence as thousands of criminals gain access to firearms.

And for supporters and opponents of tighter gun laws alike, that dichotomy illustrates both the promise and the challenge of the state and national debates.

Gun control advocates say persistent urban violence in a city with firm authority over legal gun transactions shows that the government needs to crack down harder on the illegal transmission of weapons.

Supporters of gun rights, meanwhile, say it shows that many gun control proposals are misguided, such as the focus on semiautomatic assault-type weapons. Only about 1 percent of guns seized by Baltimore police last year met the department's definition of such firearms, and handguns were by far the most common weapon used in crimes.

Following the school massacre last month in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama and Gov. Martin O'Malley are pushing for stricter gun control laws to prevent mass shootings and stem the epidemic of gun violence. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said he hopes that cities such as Baltimore will derive benefits from the national debate.

"In some way the silver lining in these tragic shootings in Connecticut and in Colorado and around the country have turned the nation's focus on the willingness to have a conversation about gun violence and gun safety," Gansler said.

Proposed federal and state measures would require all gun buyers to pass background checks, limit the types of high-powered weapons available and restrict the number of bullets allowed in magazines. Other proposals call for better tracking and control of gun sales nationwide, which some hope would help Baltimore stop the tide of weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Each year, police in Maryland recover thousands of weapons that have been misused, lost or stolen, most of which were once legally purchased in Maryland and neighboring states with weaker regulations.

"The biggest problem with Maryland is that it's surrounded by Virginia and Pennsylvania," said Becca Knox, director of research for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "So guns are flowing all around Maryland."

Maryland laws already address many of the president's intentions. The state prohibits the sale of handguns and many high-powered weapons without background checks. High-capacity magazines that hold more than 20 rounds are illegal.

Baltimore tracks gun offenders, requiring them to register on a database that now includes 2,000 people. The city can impose a penalty — though it seldom does — on those who fail to report lost or stolen guns.

Still, Baltimore tallied 217 homicides last year — about 10 percent more than in 2011 and most of them gun-related — and had a much higher homicide rate than U.S. cities of similar size.

Crime researchers and law enforcement officials say new federal legislation would help stem the flow of guns into Baltimore as other states are required to get tougher on gun violations. Still, many gun violence experts use words such as "gradual" and "indirect" in predicting the impact federal gun legislation would have here.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts acknowledged that he is unsure that proposals to crack down on assault-type weapons would put a dent in Baltimore crime, but said that doesn't mean limits are not worthwhile.

"I think we have more regulations in how you drive a car than how you purchase a gun, and the use of that gun and the training and use of that gun," he said. "So anything that will help to save these young lives, whether it's … anyone on our streets or children in Connecticut, I think that's a positive."

O'Malley has proposed measures that would limit magazine capacities to 10 rounds and add a police fingerprinting requirement to own a handgun. He wants to update safety training for handgun owners, expand the definition of an "assault rifle" and prohibit gun sales to people deemed potentially violent when treated at a mental health center.

Nearly all firearms used to commit crimes in Maryland were initially sold legally, and the challenge of the gun proposals is trying to stem the transfer of thousands of guns to second and subsequent owners who undergo no background screenings and are difficult or impossible to trace.

Consider the case of Mustafa Alif, a Baltimore milk delivery driver who lost several legally owned handguns, including some he said were stolen. They were used in an armed robbery, found stashed in a dangerous East Baltimore neighborhood and used by a man with a lengthy criminal record to gun down police Detective Troy Chesley in 2007.

"Those guns didn't come from the sky," said Joseph J. Vince, a retired federal agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who teaches at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg.

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