In gun control debate, no easy fixes to Baltimore street violence

Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the country — and Baltimore's are even stricter — yet the city continues to struggle with rampant gun violence as thousands of criminals gain access to firearms.

And for supporters and opponents of tighter gun laws alike, that dichotomy illustrates both the promise and the challenge of the state and national debates.


Gun control advocates say persistent urban violence in a city with firm authority over legal gun transactions shows that the government needs to crack down harder on the illegal transmission of weapons.

Supporters of gun rights, meanwhile, say it shows that many gun control proposals are misguided, such as the focus on semiautomatic assault-type weapons. Only about 1 percent of guns seized by Baltimore police last year met the department's definition of such firearms, and handguns were by far the most common weapon used in crimes.


Following the school massacre last month in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama and Gov. Martin O'Malley are pushing for stricter gun control laws to prevent mass shootings and stem the epidemic of gun violence. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said he hopes that cities such as Baltimore will derive benefits from the national debate.

"In some way the silver lining in these tragic shootings in Connecticut and in Colorado and around the country have turned the nation's focus on the willingness to have a conversation about gun violence and gun safety," Gansler said.

Proposed federal and state measures would require all gun buyers to pass background checks, limit the types of high-powered weapons available and restrict the number of bullets allowed in magazines. Other proposals call for better tracking and control of gun sales nationwide, which some hope would help Baltimore stop the tide of weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Each year, police in Maryland recover thousands of weapons that have been misused, lost or stolen, most of which were once legally purchased in Maryland and neighboring states with weaker regulations.

"The biggest problem with Maryland is that it's surrounded by Virginia and Pennsylvania," said Becca Knox, director of research for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "So guns are flowing all around Maryland."

Maryland laws already address many of the president's intentions. The state prohibits the sale of handguns and many high-powered weapons without background checks. High-capacity magazines that hold more than 20 rounds are illegal.

Baltimore tracks gun offenders, requiring them to register on a database that now includes 2,000 people. The city can impose a penalty — though it seldom does — on those who fail to report lost or stolen guns.

Still, Baltimore tallied 217 homicides last year — about 10 percent more than in 2011 and most of them gun-related — and had a much higher homicide rate than U.S. cities of similar size.


Crime researchers and law enforcement officials say new federal legislation would help stem the flow of guns into Baltimore as other states are required to get tougher on gun violations. Still, many gun violence experts use words such as "gradual" and "indirect" in predicting the impact federal gun legislation would have here.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts acknowledged that he is unsure that proposals to crack down on assault-type weapons would put a dent in Baltimore crime, but said that doesn't mean limits are not worthwhile.

"I think we have more regulations in how you drive a car than how you purchase a gun, and the use of that gun and the training and use of that gun," he said. "So anything that will help to save these young lives, whether it's … anyone on our streets or children in Connecticut, I think that's a positive."

O'Malley has proposed measures that would limit magazine capacities to 10 rounds and add a police fingerprinting requirement to own a handgun. He wants to update safety training for handgun owners, expand the definition of an "assault rifle" and prohibit gun sales to people deemed potentially violent when treated at a mental health center.

Nearly all firearms used to commit crimes in Maryland were initially sold legally, and the challenge of the gun proposals is trying to stem the transfer of thousands of guns to second and subsequent owners who undergo no background screenings and are difficult or impossible to trace.

Consider the case of Mustafa Alif, a Baltimore milk delivery driver who lost several legally owned handguns, including some he said were stolen. They were used in an armed robbery, found stashed in a dangerous East Baltimore neighborhood and used by a man with a lengthy criminal record to gun down police Detective Troy Chesley in 2007.


"Those guns didn't come from the sky," said Joseph J. Vince, a retired federal agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who teaches at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg.

A gun can have a life spanning decades, and ATF officials use a "time-to-crime" measure to describe how long firearms are in circulation before being used in a crime. The figure does not take into account guns never used illegally.

Time-to-crime on Maryland weapons in 2011 was 12.6 years, higher than the national average of 11.2. That means fewer guns in the state were bought with criminal intent but rather found their way into circulation over time, the agency says.

Guns sold in Maryland are less likely than in other states to have a time-to-crime of less than two years. But guns used in crimes also come from other states and account for many of Baltimore's problems, authorities say.

In 2011, 1,707 guns from other states were recovered in Maryland; by comparison, 681 guns from Maryland were recovered in other states. Pennsylvania was the source of 265 of the guns recovered in Maryland, 418 traced back to Virginia and 146 originated in West Virginia.

Each of those states ranks lower than Maryland on the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence's "scorecards" of states that have strong gun laws. Maryland ranks seventh, but some say Obama's proposal could help narrow the gap.


The plan would require all gun purchasers to pass background checks; limit felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill from acquiring guns; and close the "gun show loophole" across the nation. That exception allows buyers in many states to avoid background screenings.

About 40 percent of guns are bought without a background check. A recent Johns Hopkins University study on gun policy reform stated that 80 percent of inmates convicted of crimes using handguns said in a national survey that they had obtained the weapon through a transaction with an individual who was not a licensed dealer and thereby skipped official review.

Maryland requires background checks for handgun purchases, even through private sellers.

But background checks are no panacea. ATF data from 2011 indicates that most guns recovered by law enforcement in the state originated here.

John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, said it's clear that gun laws aren't working in Baltimore. He served on the governor's task force created last year to study access to regulated firearms by the mentally ill and was on another state task force decades ago that studied gun issues.

"We determined that violence is behavior, not technology," he said. "Laws do not control behavior. They simply define unacceptable behavior."


Criminals can get guns without background checks by stealing them, but that only accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of the guns used in crimes. A much more common method is through "straw purchasers," who buy guns on behalf of someone else, according to several studies using ATF information. Prospective buyers sometimes go through brokers, a study in Chicago showed.

And then there is the black market. Starting in 2007, Michael Papantonakis, an unlicensed dealer, sold guns that included a Walther P38, a Beretta .380, a 9 mm Sig Sauer, a Smith & Wesson 9 mm, a Glock 17, an SKS 7 mm rifle, a Para-Ordnance .45-caliber gun and a Colt MK5 .357-caliber Magnum revolver with a 6-inch barrel to an ATF informant. The prices ranged from $650 to $1,500.

"We're real used to selling to Bloods and Crips," Papantonakis, who operated an Utz potato chips stall in Baltimore's Lexington Market, told the informant in a recorded conversation. He pleaded guilty and received 15 months in federal prison.

John Roman, senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute and director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, which works with the mayor's office in Washington, said illegally obtained guns come from just a few sources. By tracing guns through registration and other methods, as some proposals seek, law enforcement can shut down these covert arms dealers, he said.

"If we have the ability to track those guns, to get guns out of the hands of people with mental illness, of people known to [commit] violent acts, I think that's a positive," said Batts, who supports a requirement that all gun purchases be registered with Baltimore police.

But not everyone thinks tracking guns would make a huge difference.


"There are many ways that guns get into the hands of criminals, but in most of the violent crime cases we prosecute, the criminal obtained the gun without any paper trail," said Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. "If you trace the history of the gun, you won't find a transfer to the end user because only licensed firearms dealers are required to report transactions. The last recorded transaction will have nothing to do with the person who committed the crime."

Sheryl Goldstein, who from 2007 to 2012 led Baltimore's policy and legislative efforts against gun crime, said tracking guns requires a lot of effort.

"You can find straw purchasers, but it's an inordinate amount of work and the penalties are not significant," said Goldstein, who now works with the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank. "The juice is not worth the squeeze. I think the biggest thing you can do that would make a difference in Baltimore City is mandatory minimum penalties."

Baltimore repeatedly pushed in Annapolis to establish a mandatory minimum penalty of 18 months in jail for those caught carrying illegal loaded handguns. City officials cited data showing that those caught with guns often received suspended sentences from judges.

Gansler has called for better information sharing among local, state and federal agencies. Besides criminal background checks for all nationwide gun purchases, he said, Maryland State Police need access to someone's out-of-state mental health records.

"Law enforcement depends on good information and good information flow," he said. "The state police need to have good information about individuals who are seeking a permit."


He, too, would like to stop straw purchasers and believes that fingerprinting requirements, matching a person to the gun he or she purchased, would help stop people from buying guns for others. O'Malley has proposed such a measure.

While O'Malley agreed with state law officers and national experts who say banning assault-type rifles and other weapons would have a minimal impact on Baltimore crime, he said it's just common sense to restrict them.

"I don't see any legitimate reason why any citizen needs to have an assault weapon," the governor said.

Baltimore police say they do not have data on how many violent crimes are carried out using assault-type weapons but that they seized 23 firearms that would qualify as "assault" weapons in 2012. Police seize about 2,000 guns a year.

Maryland restricts the sale of some magazines that go into assault-type weapons, but some continue to buy illegal clips.

On Jan. 11, Baltimore County police detectives charged two men at the Gun and Knife Show at the Timonium Fairgrounds with selling illegal 30-round magazines for a .223-caliber AR-15 rifle. Officers said they seized more than 120 illegal magazines from the vendors.


"It is critical to have effective laws regarding high-capacity magazines," Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson said in a statement. He chairs the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. "The laws are in place to protect public safety, and violations such as this endanger the community."

Though there are many ways to get a gun in Maryland, Vince said ATF investigators learned that the easiest way for criminals to get them is through legitimate gun dealers. Even criminals want new guns that cannot be traced to past crimes.

"The bad guys told us in our interviews that they really don't want to buy a gun from somebody off the streets — they're worried it might have a body attached to it," he said. "Criminals are no different than any other type of customer. If you want a hamburger, you go to McDonald's or Burger King. And you go to a gun store when you want a specific type of gun."