Baltimore City Council members explain why they are voting for or against a one-year mandatory sentence for possession and use of an illegal handgun during a crime. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
The Baltimore City Council voted 8-7 Monday to give preliminary approval to weakened legislation originally designed to impose a mandatory one-year jail sentence on people who illegally carry guns.
After dozens rallied outside City Hall to oppose the legislation, Councilman John Bullock cast what was seen as the deciding vote in favor of the bill.
Bullock spoke at length of the wrongheadedness of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. But, he said, guns are a different matter.
"They are inherently tools of violence that result in the loss of life," Bullock, who represents West Baltimore, said of firearms carried illegally. "Growing up in a violent neighborhood during the crack era of the '80s and '90s provides some context. Walking through many neighborhoods, including my own, was sometimes terrifying. I know people who were shot, who shot other people, who went to jail, who got killed. … Gun violence in Baltimore is another war on black people, particularly young black men."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young voted in favor of the bill along with Bullock, Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, Sharon Middleton, Leon Pinkett, Ed Reisinger, Eric Costello and Robert Stokes.
Opposed were Zeke Cohen, Brandon Scott, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, Kris Burnett, Shannon Sneed and Mary Pat Clarke.
The legislation had become the subject of heated debate in a year when Baltimore faces a record-high homicide rate. Supporters argued it would be a useful tool to curb the violence, while opponents countered that the city risked returning to harsh policies of yesteryear.
But the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee voted last month to gut the bill and move an amended version of the legislation to the full 15-member council — making the legislation little different from existing state law except for adding a $1,000 fine.
The committee unanimously adopted a pair of amendments that would make the mandatory sentence apply only on a second offense or if someone was carrying a gun "in connection with" a crime against a person or property.
Existing state laws provide a mandatory minimum one-year term on a second handgun-possession offense. They also require a five-year mandatory sentence for using guns in connection with violent crimes or drug dealing or possessing them as a felon.
Outside the council chambers, dozens rallied against the bill.
Kenneth Gwee, president of The Baltimore Southern Christian Leadership Conference, warned it could drag "Baltimore into a dark and immoral past, creating a moral crisis requiring our immediate attention."
Sneed argued the council had not tried enough holistic solutions to fighting crime, such as opening more recreation centers. Without such plans, she said, tough sentences will have little effect on gun violence.
"This is not going to stop the shootings," Sneed said of the bill.
Like Bullock, Pinkett said he saw a distinction between mandatory sentences for drugs and for guns. He cited the city's gun violence this year as evidence tougher laws are needed.