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Guns for bail? Baltimore City Council considers it

Trevor Brooks, a convicted murderer who attended a Silicon Valley entrepreneurship program after getting out of prison, has an idea he thinks could reduce the rate of gun violence in Baltimore: Let people use an app to turn in guns and make bail.

Given the choice between giving up a gun or sitting in Central Booking, "they're going to turn the guns in as fast as they can," Brooks said.

On Monday, the City Council took up a resolution that would lend its support to the idea. The council will consider the measure as the city scrambles to contain a surge in gun violence that has killed 118 people this year and wounded 200 more, and has city officials leaning on the federal government for help.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, introduced the measure. He said Brooks' company, GunBail, could offer a new option.

"We have to be thinking as creatively as possible to get guns off the streets," Scott said. "I'm just hopeful we'll be able to be on the cutting edge of something."

Authorities have held gun buybacks in the past, offering cash payments or gift cards in exchange for weapons. While the events often recovered hundreds of guns in a single day, they're not typically the kinds of weapons used in crimes. And the events don't tend to attract people who are likely to commit gun crimes.

Brooks said the strength of his idea is that it would target people involved in the criminal justice system.

"These are what I deem crime guns," Brooks said, "the guns that will be used in the next random act of violence."

But for the program to get off the ground, it likely would need the full support of the Baltimore Police Department, the state's attorney's office and the judiciary. Police spokesman T.J. Smith confirmed that officials had met with Brooks and said his idea would have to be carefully considered.

"We're always looking for creative ideas to get guns off of the street," Smith said. "Something this serious deserves a lot of scrutiny."

After hearing the outlines of the proposal during a council working lunch Monday, Councilman John Bullock said, "It might be a logistical challenge."

"I have a lot of questions," he said.

Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, confirmed that prosecutors have met with Brooks.

"At a time where gun violence continues to plague our communities and bail reform is at the forefront of our minds, such innovative programmatic concepts are inspiring," she said. "We thought the program required more development from a legal standpoint."

Brooks said he's received positive feedback — retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis presented the idea to state lawmakers in Annapolis this year — and said he hopes the council will pass the resolution, giving the program a boost so a pilot can be launched this summer.

"Give us the pilot test, we'll take them off the streets by the hundreds a day," he said.

Ultimately, Brooks thinks he could get thousands of guns a month off the street, hauling in illegal firearms faster than criminals can replace them.

The Police Department said it has seized 438 guns this year.

To turn in a gun, an eligible nonviolent jail inmate's family would use an app developed by Brooks to take a picture of the gun and send it to GunBail, which would then mail a box and gun lock.

Once the gun was surrendered to authorities, the courts would agree to release the inmate on their own recognizance and law enforcement would agree not to investigate whether the gun had been used in any other crimes.

That last step would ensure detainees suffered no repercussions for taking part in the program. But it could deny police some investigative leads.

GunBail raised more than $40,000 in the first few days of a recent crowd-funding campaign, and Brooks said he has other funding sources lined up. The inmate would pay a $99 processing fee but the service would not cost the city anything, Brooks said.

Brooks, who grew up in Liberty Heights, said he began formulating the idea for the program while serving a lengthy prison sentence for a 1993 murder case. He said the incident began with a physical tussle and ended with a gun going off, killing his friend.

"It's the worst thing that ever happened," Brooks said. "We shouldn't have had that gun."

Then he began working with New Me, a business incubator now located in Miami, which focuses on technology entrepreneurs from backgrounds that might cause them to be overlooked in the Silicon Valley startup scene.

"I just learned everything really about startups," Brooks said, including how to write code and how to run a business.

Now, he said, he just needs a chance to try his idea.

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