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City, county leaders press for tougher gun laws

"He smirked at me."

That's how Baltimore Police Officer Todd Strohman described the gunman just before he
pulled the trigger, putting a bullet into his shoulder, a bullet that will remain inches above his heart for the rest of his life.

The cop had another message for state lawmakers who make up the Senate's Judiciary
Committee contemplating tougher guns laws proposed by the city (see city's website describing proposed legislation): If the proposed laws had been on the books, the person charged with shooting him wouldn't have been on the street.

The audience applauded Strohman and the lawmakers wished him well. There was no sense
in grilling him on the necessity of enhanced gun legislation. The man charged in the crime had served two years of a 12-year sentence for armed robbery (the judge had suspended six of the years) and had been charged with five previous gun crimes. He had gotten out a little more than two weeks before the shooting on North Calvert Street.

"Seventeen days after he gets out, he shoots one of our cops," said Deputy Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale.

See more on the gun hearing:

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There was no sense in questioning Nicole Harris-Crest either. Her father, former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., had been shot and killed during a botched robbery outside a Northeast Baltimore shopping center.

The suspect had just served 85 days for handgun possession, which city cops says is better than average. More than 80 percent of fist-time gun offender in Baltimore get suspended sentences, with no jail time, and the remainder average just four months behind bars.

"One man changed my life," Harris-Crest said. "One bullet destroyed my family. One gun took my father's life. Criminals are deemed safe to run the streets by our courts and innocent lives are snuffed out."

This was all part of a carefully orchestrated display in front of the committee. City officials have been coming to Annapolis for seven years without much success, rarely getting tougher gun bills out of committee for a full vote on the floor. They came close last year, but still ended in failure.

This year, they decided to make sure lawmakers understood the proposed legislation was not aimed at the city. Concerns have been raised that the bills would put law-breaking citizens in prison in Baltimore at the expense of curbing rights of law-abiding gun owners in the rest of the state.

So in addition to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and the usual cadre of top police commanders, the city delegation brought the county executive from Howard County and top prosecutors from Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

"Howard County does not experience the same level of crime as some of its neighbors, but we all know that criminals with guns don't really care about borders, or pay attention to where one county ends and another begins," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. "The raw crime and gun numbers in my county is low, but they still tell a story of the problem we're here to address."

Rawlings-Blake said the help from the suburban leaders and cops with bullets lodged in their bodies was an effort to "tell our story in a more impactful way. Hopefully, the legislature will understand that this is not just about Baltimore City."

To lawmakers, she said, "This is simple. If you carry a loaded, illegal gun, there are real consequences."

The committee was looking at seven different bills, but three were the most important and debated. Two were sponsored by the city delegation and the third by the governor's office.

The governor's bill is nearly identical to one that got broad support in last year's failed effort -- making it a crime to use any gun, not just a handgun, in the commission of a violence crime or felony. The idea is that a person who holds up a convenience store with a shotgun should get just as much time as a person who holds it up with a handgun. Ulman noted that while Howard County had just one murder in 2010, it was committed with a long gun. And Barksdale said that 27 percent of gun arrests in the city last year involved long guns. "Long guns and handguns are equally deadly," he said.

One of the city proposals would up the penalties for being a felon in possession of a handgun. As it stands now, the penalty is a mandatory five years in prison. The new bill would up that to five to 15 years in prison, but give judges discretion on sentencing within that range. Prosecutors don't like mandatory sentences because it creates a disincentive to plea bargain. If a defendant is going to get five years whether he pleads guilty or goes to trial, he might just as well take his chances at trial, and that clogs the system with easily winnable cases.

Neither of those two proposals elicited much debate.

What did set off a round of questioning was Senate Bill 239. That would make handgun possession a felony with an 18 month mandatory sentence. Several senators objected, saying that it would ensnare not only gunmen on the street but also people like banker Edwin F. Hale, who recently got caught with a gun at BWI that he said he had forgotten in his suitcase. He was charged with a misdemeanor, but lawmakers worried that the city's bill would put him in prison for 18 months. Or target a person coming home from the gun range who forgot to take a bullet out of a handgun.

That set off a spirited debate, with both city State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger trying to stress that the bill wouldn't affect Hale at all -- he had a valid carry permit and the bill targets only people with illegal handguns. Also, they said, to a still skeptical body, that the proposed change in language leaves in tact the misdemeanor part of the law, giving prosecutors discretion to charge a person caught with an illegal gun with a crime that could result in probation but no jail time or a more serious crime that would result in a felony and 18 months behind bars.

Still pressed, Shellenberger launched an animated demonstration saying "we aren't chasing after businessmen with briefcases at BWI. They aren't the problem." The bill would allow him to imprison people stopped by cops with loaded guns in their cars and string of drug convictions behind them.

An exasperated Rawlings-Blake: "We've tried it other ways," she said, noting the four month average jail time for just a small portion of gun offenders. "We all know what happens. Four months is two months. People can do that standing on their heads."

Added an equally exasperated Bernstein: "We're trying to stop people from driving into our city with loaded firearms. I don't think that's too much to ask."

Still, other lawmakers wondered about giving prosecutors too much discretion in whom to charged with minor or serious offenses. Bernstein and Shellenberger stressed they make those decisions every day.

The city has a troubled history in Annapolis. The police commissioner has complained in years past about being treated rudely by lawmakers who he said think Baltimore is an island separate from the rest of the city. And former State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called a watered-down law on witness intimidation a "toothless-tiger."

Still, on Thursday one lawmaker from Washington County, Republican Christopher B. Shank, complained that the laws seemed just for Baltimore and that targeting criminals in Baltimore shouldn't mean restricting guns for others across Maryland. And the city still has to get through the House Judiciary Committee, where laws proposed by law enforcement are known to die.

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