Baltimore City Council deeply divided over mandatory sentence for gun possession

The City Council is deeply divided over a proposal to impose a mandatory one-year sentence for carrying a handgun in much of Baltimore.

The council held an impromptu, 45-minute debate on the idea Monday afternoon before the legislation was even introduced Monday night. Seven members of the 15-member body say they'll support the measure, while four oppose it. The remaining four say they're maybes.

Council leaders say the ordinance is a necessary step toward getting rising levels of violence under control in Baltimore by ensuring that people caught with a gun get time behind bars. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young urged his colleagues to support the measure during a working lunch that turned into a lengthy back and forth on the bill.

"The criminals are running this city," Young said. "We're not running it, they are. And if we want to do a first step, it is this bill right here."

But opponents of the idea said there's no evidence to show that mandatory minimum sentences drive down crime and that tying judges' hands could lead to unfair outcomes.

"This is not something that's innovative," said Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who quickly came out in opposition to the bill after city leaders announced it last week.

The bill would create the one-year penalty in cases where a person was convicted of carrying a handgun within 100 yards of a school, church or other place of public assembly — a definition city officials say would cover most of Baltimore. Supporters had to tie the measure to certain locations for the proposed city ordinance to be allowed under Maryland law.

Carrying a handgun on city streets without a hard-to-get permit is already illegal under state law, but police officials have focused on court records that they say show judges are being too lenient with gun offenders, frequently suspending part of their sentences.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis praised Young and Mayor Catherine Pugh on Monday for backing the measure.

"I think our community demands that we do things differently and hold people accountable who choose to illegally possess guns and use those guns to resolve conflict," he said at a news conference. "Period. It's not about mass incarceration. It's not about zero tolerance."

But Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee and an opponent of the bill, said officers are arresting fewer people suspected of gun crimes and not targeting the people most likely to commit violent acts.

"Just passing this legislation is not going to make gun arrests go back up," he said. "We can't have this conversation in a vacuum."

In addition to Scott and Burnett, Council members Shannon Sneed and Ryan Dorsey have said they oppose the measure. Council members John Bullock, Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry and Zeke Cohen said they need to consider it further.

Prior to the council meeting where the bill was introduced, Young and other council members met with eight mothers whose sons had been fatally shot and are urging passage of the bill.

Alice Oaks, the mother of two murdered sons who is president of the group Survivors Against Violence Everywhere, broke down in tears discussing the bill.

"Guns have impacted my life tremendously," she said between tears. "It got me to a point where I wanted to commit suicide. I'm for what Jack is bringing to the table. No mother, no one, should have to go through this pain."

Once the bill was introduced, Young told council members from the dais that the city is on pace for more than 400 homicides this year.

"This is about carrying illegal guns in the city of Baltimore," he said. "This is not about color or race as some folks have suggested."

Young took issue with some protesters at the meeting who held up signs opposing mandatory minimum sentences. He said he's had three family members killed by gun violence.

"If it hits your family, you want the maximum amount of time served," he said. "Unless it hits your family, don't complain."

At the lunch, Henry said he wanted to know more about how State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby would use such an ordinance, saying the bill would represent a power shift.

"When you take it away from the judges, you're giving it to prosecutors," he said.

Mosby has declined to spell out her position on the bill, but has issued a statement saying she is supportive of measures intended to strengthen gun control.

Council leaders had sought to fast track the bill during the council's quiet summer period. They hoped to have something for the mayor to sign next month.

City Councilman Eric Costello told The Baltimore Sun Monday morning his Judiciary Committee would hold a hearing and vote on the proposed gun legislation — a key legislative step — at 10 a.m. Tuesday. But he agreed to back off that idea after some of his colleagues objected at the lunch. He said Monday afternoon that the hearing would not be held until next week at the earliest.

"This is the most critical issue the city is facing right now," Costello said. "We need to all be focused on this issue."

Costello said the council could vote on the bill twice in August — a practice called a "double reading" — which would allow Pugh to sign it into law as early as next month.

"We need to take this seriously," he said of the high level of gun violence in Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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