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Focus on 'trigger pullers' results in sustained spike in Baltimore gun seizures

Baltimore police see success in targeting 'trigger pullers,' as firearm seizures spike

Through traffic stops, home raids, routine arrests and occassionally-violent confrontations with armed suspects, Baltimore police officers have seized more than 400 illegal firearms so far this year — a rate of about four seizures per day, and a 50 percent increase over the same period last year, according to city data.

As of this week, the department had made 403 gun arrests in 2016. Police spokesman T.J. Smith called the haul "a tangible result" of officers working tirelessly to stem the record-setting violence of the past year.

"Officers are focused on those who pose an immediate threat to the safety of citizens of Baltimore," Smith said. "Daily, officers are putting themselves in harm's way getting these loaded and ready guns off the street from people who are carrying them illegally."

Going after the city's "trigger pullers" and others with a "nexus to violence" in Baltimore's drug trade has been a goal of Police Commissioner Kevin Davis since he took over the department last summer, when homicides were skyrocketing. The city saw a per-capita record 344 homicides in 2015, with nearly 90 percent the result of shootings.

Gun seizures so far this year far outpace those in the beginning of last year, and are a slight increase over the first quarter of 2014. They continue an upward trend since the death one year ago of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who sustained a severe spinal injury in police custody.

Six police officers were charged in Gray's arrest and death, and arrests overall declined in the months that followed, spurring concern that police were hesitant to do their jobs. But gun seizures actually increased starting in June.

That success, analysts said, was a distinctly local achievement, even amid an increase in federal law enforcement in the city.

"In the grand scheme of things, in terms of the number of arrests or seizures of guns, the vast majority are not part of some federal partnership operation," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "They come more on a daily basis, based on the work of patrol officers and detectives."

Joseph Vince, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, said arresting a suspect with a gun "is taking a gun off the street."

"That's a benefit," said Vince, now director of criminal justice programs at Mount St. Mary's University. "There's no question about it."

There were 1,898 gun seizures in 2015. More than half of the weapons — 977 — were semi-automatic pistols. There were 495 revolvers seized, 361 long guns and 95 described as "other."

Among the most common calibers seized were the 9 mm, with 336, the .22, with 244, and the .40, with 201. Police said 244 weapons were tied through ballistics testing to another crime.

Guns were seized across the city, and the circumstances in which they were taken varied widely.

Officers responding to an attempted robbery in the Belair Edison neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore late last month said they spotted a 24-year-old man who matched the suspect's description placing a book bag under a vehicle. Inside, they said, was a loaded .357 caliber handgun. The man was arrested and remains behind bars, according to online court records.

In a highly publicized confrontation three days later, officers said they came upon a father and son at the intersection of North and Greenmount avenues holding a pistol and a semiautomatic rifle and believed they were poised to fire upon a crowd of people. The officers shot and killed the pair.

The same day, officers conducting a traffic stop in Fells Point said they found a .357 caliber handgun in a Mickey Mouse backpack. They arrested a 25-year-old woman; she has since been released from jail.

And during a late-night house raid in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Lakeland last week, police said they found 57 glass vials of cocaine, 97 gel caps of heroin and a rusty Intratec 9 mm handgun with 31 cartridges and an obliterated serial number.

They arrested a 31-year-old woman and her 35-year-old boyfriend. The woman has been released from jail; the man remains behind bars.

Webster said the seizures should help reduce gun violence.

"The more police are being proactive with respect to identifying and arresting people who are carrying guns around," he said, the better off the city will be. He said a public perception that police are going after guns can be as impactful as gun seizures.

Still, Webster and others said, the process can take time. And if those arrested with illegal guns aren't kept behind bars, the impact of seizures will be smaller — an argument Davis made, to no avail, in pressing state lawmakers this year for steeper penalties for illegal gun possession.

At a meeting this week of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group of local, state and federal law enforcement officials, Davis compared the more than 400 gun seizures in Baltimore this year to about 900 in New York City, which has a force about 10 times the size of Baltimore's.

He said he didn't know why the seizures hadn't meant less violence. As of last week, non-fatal shootings were up 43 percent compared to last year, and homicides were up 11 percent.

"Any other time, a 53 percent increase in gun arrests would coincide with a reduction in violence," Davis said. "It's not corresponding with a reduction in violence, and we're trying to figure out why."

Davis said police developed a list of 600 "trigger-pullers" — people they believe are most likely to shoot someone or be shot.

He said 47 people on the list have been killed since September, and 155 have been arrested.

Webster said gun markets are based on supply and demand, and the increase in seizures could help cut down on supply in Baltimore just as other factors — including the 2013 state law that requires gun purchasers to be licensed and fingerprinted — are having a similar effect.

Webster's team recently analyzed trace data from handguns used in city crimes from January 2006 through September 2015. After the state law went into effect, the researchers found, the number of guns used in a crime within a year of their retail sale in Maryland by someone other than the purchaser — which can be a sign of a gun diversion or straw sale — dropped by more than 75 percent, or from slightly more than three guns per month on average to slightly less than one.

Webster said that drop reflects a reduction in the local supply of guns, which jacks up cost and increases the risk of purchasing illegal weapons in Baltimore, forcing sellers to traffick across state lines and buyers to deal with sellers they don't trust.

David Cheplak, a spokesman for the local office of the ATF, said there are illegal gun sellers across the country looking to capitalize on the Baltimore market if local supply dries up. He noted the arrest in December of several buyers and sellers trafficking firearms to the city from Tennessee.

"There's the concept that there's a need for black market firearms in Baltimore," Cheplak said, "and people who are in that business, so to speak, recognize that, and they're figuring out ways to fill that demand."

In 2014, the most recent year for which ATF data is available, 2,208 of 5,079 firearms traced in Maryland by the agency originated in another state. Most came from states such as Virginia, where gun laws are weaker than in Maryland.

Attorney General Brian Frosh in January announced a first-of-its-kind regional partnership with his counterparts in Virginia and the District of Columbia to increase collaboration and information sharing to target illegal gun trafficking.

David Nitkin, a spokesman for Frosh, said prosecutors involved in the partnership prioritized "cross-jurisdictional investigations and prosecutions of gun traffickers" and "identifying best and worst practices among retail gun dealers to reduce illegal gun sales," and are continuing discussions.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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Gun seizures, January through March 2016

2014 — 335

2015 — 237

2016 — 370*

*Through April 2

61°