Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis plans to step up efforts to lobby lawmakers for more prison time for people arrested with illegal handguns and high-capacity gun magazines. And he intends to call on trauma surgeons and grieving family members to help make his case.
Davis' pledge to seek General Assembly action comes as city police struggle with an unparalleled rise in shootings and homicides since the April 2015 riots. His proposals also come amid a raft of gun control proposals expected to be debated in Annapolis, including bills to ban guns from college campuses and prevent people on federal terrorist watch lists from buying them.
The commissioner's ideas will likely face resistance. Maryland already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, and key lawmakers are skeptical that more laws would help. Davis' proposal runs counter to the prevailing attitude in Annapolis, where lawmakers last year enacted an overhaul of Maryland's mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crimes.
"Justice is individualized," said state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "Where two years might make sense in one case, it won't make sense in another. That's why mandatory minimums don't work."
But with Baltimore heading toward its second straight 300-homicide year, Davis said gun offenders are being released without consequences and — in some cases — harming or killing again within days.
"The certainty of a consequence for illegally possessing a firearm in D.C. and New York and other places is a felony charge, and that felony charge is known by the bad guys who choose to carry guns," Davis said.
In Maryland "there's no consequence associated with illegally wearing, carrying or transporting a firearm."
Davis, who views the act of carrying a gun as "pre-murder," said gunmen are increasingly shooting with intent to kill. The Baltimore Sun found in a yearlong investigation that one out of three people shot in the city died in 2015, making Baltimore one of the most lethal large cities in America. And more than 60 percent of victims last year were shot in the head, a telling sign to detectives that victims were killed at close range and targeted.
So far this year, 85 percent of the more than 260 people killed in Baltimore were shot to death.
Davis said judges are suspending too much prison time in sentences for people arrested for illegal gun possession. Of 175 people found guilty this year of illegally possessing a gun, 109 received suspended sentences. In 14 cases, all of the sentence was suspended.
Among those serving little to no jail time, Davis said, were three suspects arrested for handgun violations who were sentenced to three to five years, but the bulk of their incarceration was suspended. Within weeks of their release, they were rearrested for crimes such as armed robbery, aggravated assault, attempted first-degree murder and murder, he said.
Davis initially began lobbying in February for laws that would sidestep judges' discretion and ensure jail time for gun offenders, urging lawmakers to consider mandatory prison sentences.
Influential Baltimore lawmakers pushed his ideas. Sen. Catherine E. Pugh — Baltimore's Democratic nominee for mayor — and Del. Luke Clippinger, a prosecutor, sponsored legislation that would have strengthened the current sentence for illegally carrying a gun from 30 days or more to a mandatory year or more. The efforts failed.
Lawmakers felt current laws already provide for sentences of a year or more in prison, and some feared that this proposal could inadvertently incarcerate law-abiding gun owners.
It's difficult to predict how Davis' requests will be received during the coming session, which begins in January. The national political climate has shifted away from mandatory sentences, said Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff for House Speaker Michael E. Busch. There is also a regional divide among lawmakers about the urgency of enacting new gun laws.
"I don't know what the appetite will be in the Judiciary Committee for that," she said.
Frederick County Republican Sen. Michael J. Hough worries about unintended consequences.
"If I lived in East Baltimore and I'm a law-abiding person, I'd probably want to carry a gun, too. If you just improperly stored it, you could get busted by the law," said Hough, a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which reviews gun legislation in the Senate.
Democrat Del. Kathleen M. Dumais was instrumental in pushing the 2013 gun control package through the House Judiciary Committee, where she is vice chairman. But she questioned whether more state laws would be effective when firearms are flooding into the city from states with weaker gun laws, such as Virginia.
"I understand the frustration of trying to address the crime in Baltimore," she said, "and I'm more than willing to listen to his ideas."
Del. Mary L. Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, said she supports more regulations, including restrictions on high-caliber guns that are increasingly being seized by city police. But she said lawmakers need to focus more on the socioeconomic inequalities plaguing the city, not mandatory prison sentences that don't "stop the hand that's pulling the trigger."
Del. Brooke E. Lierman, also a Baltimore Democrat, said gun violence in the city demonstrates why handgun violations deserve the more stringent punishment Davis seeks.
"Obviously our mass-incarceration issues are real and serious, but in my mind there is a difference between smoking pot on the corner or dealing pot on the corner and carrying around a high-capacity weapon," she said. "People are carrying around guns to kill other people, not to maim them, not to scare them off, but to kill them."
Knowing resistance is ahead, Davis said he plans to draw up more provisions to address concerns that his proposal would inadvertently snag law-abiding gun owners.
"We just have to do a better job — we being law enforcement —to explain the impact illegal guns have," Davis said. "Our game plan, our strategy will be a little different this time."
He said he plans to invite groups representing victims such as Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United and A Mother's Cry to lobby with him. He already has the support of Marylanders to Prevent Gun violence, the group's president said.
He also plans to call on Baltimore trauma surgeons such as Maryland Shock Trauma Center physician-in-chief Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, who has said surgeons are struggling with trying to save gunshot victims increasingly shot by higher-caliber weapons or more bullets than in years past.
In a statement, Scalea indicated that he would testify in Annapolis if called upon.
"The issue of gun violence is near and dear to my heart and all of us at Shock Trauma," he said. "How we curb it is a much more difficult conversation. I am sure the commissioner will lobby for more laws which may help. I do not know how to get it done, but I am certainly in favor of less violence."
The Maryland Firearms Safety Act of 2013 prohibits the sale of gun magazines with more than 10 rounds. If convicted of committing a felony or violent crime with an extended magazine, defendants face a minimum of five years in prison and a maximum of 20.
Since the law passed, dozens of extended magazines that far exceed the limit have been confiscated in the city, according to police. But only 11 people have been charged in Baltimore and fewer than 100 statewide under the magazine statute, The Sun found.
Davis said the law should also apply to criminals committing misdemeanors. If the law is aimed at preventing violence, charging people after they commit felony acts such as murder and attempted murder is too late, he said.
"I unload 14 rounds, chances are I'm going to kill you," Davis said.
Latest Baltimore City