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Baltimore police chief wants mandatory jail time for carrying loaded, illegal guns

The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore's police commissioner wants people carrying illegal guns to go to jail.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis wants the General Assembly to pass legislation requiring that people who are caught with a loaded handgun be locked up for at least a year.

As Baltimore battles a deadly surge in gun violence, Davis and two lawmakers from the city are pushing a bill to dramatically enhance the penalty, statewide, for carrying a loaded, illegal gun.

"If we're going to win this conflict, there has to be a consequence to someone making a decision to arm himself with an illegal firearm," Davis said. "Right now, that consequence is nonexistent."

The legislation would convert the current sentence of at least 30 days to a mandatory year or more in jail. A second offense would be a felony that would require at least five years behind bars. The bill would strip from judges the discretion to reduce those sentences.

It would penalize a person for possessing a loaded gun illegally even if he or she committed no other crime.

Carrying an illegal gun is currently "treated no differently than a first-time DUI offense in Maryland," Davis said. "The gun-carrying bad guys know it, and that's why they don't think twice."

The idea of levying harsher penalties on criminals is a shift from prior efforts at gun restrictions in the state, which have focused on restricting firearm sales. And the plan departs from a criminal justice policy trend of avoiding strict mandatory minimum sentences.

"Gun violence in our city is out of control," said Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, one of the bill's co-sponsors and a Democratic candidate for Baltimore mayor. "While I don't believe that we can arrest our way out of the many problems that our city faces — unemployment and jobs among them — at the same time, the violence in the streets has to be curbed."

With 344 homicides, 2015 was the deadliest year per capita in city history. Of those killings, nearly 90 percent were the result of shootings.

An additional 900 people were wounded in shootings. Counting both fatal and nonfatal shootings, gun violence jumped more than 75 percent over the previous year.

Some lawmakers are skeptical of increasing the penalty for carrying a loaded, illegal gun.

"A lot of folks aren't voting for things that increase penalties," said Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat.

Republicans, who often argue Maryland needs stiffer penalties for gun crimes rather than new gun laws, asked whether the proposal would cast too broad a net and would cause problems in the state's rural areas.

"Usually, I'm a guy who says you've got to have a minimum for these criminals," said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican. "If you've got some guy out in the country, and it's obvious that he was doing something on the farm, should he really get locked up for a year for that?"

Maryland already has strict penalties for parolees, felons and people with violent convictions who are caught with a gun. And there are separate laws to punish people for committing crimes with a gun.

"Our greatest criticism of the way we handle gun crimes in Maryland is that they are not enforced," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "We don't enforce the gun laws we have."

The gun proposal follows a pattern of so-called Project Exile laws, which use federal courts to hand down tougher sentences for gun crimes.

Those efforts, which began in Virginia in the 1990s and have spread across the country, involve creating stiffer sentences for suspects who use a gun while committing other crimes. Criminologists say the research is mixed on whether it was effective.

Nonetheless, experts say it's a legitimate and useful strategy to focus on people with violent histories who also break gun possession laws.

"They tend not to be the 'law-abiding public' who decided not to get a permit," said University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, who has studied "Project Exile" laws. "It is quite important … to be focused on that population, because that's the population at the highest risk of committing or becoming the next victim of violent crime."

Leading Democrats who backed the state's sweeping gun control laws in 2013 did not openly endorse the proposal, and at least one suggested it was a bad idea.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it was "not necessary" because prosecutors and judges could agree to give stronger sentences for gun possession, as he has seen happen in Prince George's County, where he practices law. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he would defer judgment.

"We're going to respect the wishes of any police chief who wants to come down here and testify on a piece of legislation," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "Whether or not it will pass? We'll have to have a hearing."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not include the bill among those she's personally pushing.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan declined to comment.

A Senate hearing is scheduled for March 9. A House hearing is schedule for March 15.

At a news conference in Baltimore last week, Davis highlighted the case of a city man arrested with five illegal guns. He had been arrested two months earlier on a gun charge, and several other times before that.

Davis called him "just the type of gun-carrying bad guy that needs to be incarcerated."

Several leading Democrats involved in Maryland's gun debates agreed that the 30-day penalty was not strong enough, but questioned whether Davis had created the right solution.

"The idea makes sense to me," said Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who as a senator shepherded through the legislature a 2013 gun control bill that gave Maryland among the toughest laws in the country. "I like the idea of increasing the penalty for someone carrying a weapon without a permit. … I'm not a big fan of mandatory minimum."

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the problems of Baltimore are so large and interconnected that focusing on locking up people with guns is a "pin prick."

Zirkin supports increasing drug treatment as a way to reduce demand for drugs and ultimately reduce violence.

Putting people in jail for having loaded guns is "not the answer," Zirkin said. "I don't want to say it wouldn't make a dent. This wouldn't even make a scratch."

The lawmakers pushing the bill in the General Assembly say they don't expect it to end all gun deaths. But they argue it would limit risk.

"I don't think there's any one thing that is going to stop violence in Baltimore," said Del. Luke Clippinger, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House of Delegates.

"If you're in possession of a loaded gun that you're not supposed to have, I don't have patience for that," Clippinger said. "It has the capacity to destroy lives and further destroy neighborhoods."

Other Democrats who have voted against gun control measures have signed on to help pass this one.

"Every homicide I've ever prosecuted starts with someone having a loaded gun they shouldn't have," said Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat and former prosecutor. "Don't you want to stop them before they do that? That's the whole key. You can't save lives if you wait until after they commit the murder."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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Correction

A previous version of this article misstated the current sentence for carrying a loaded, illegal gun in Maryland.

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