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No surprise in cross-fire death of young girl--just grief

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In her arms she cradles an infant, a child of the woman with whom she shares her row house. Beside her on the step, her 20-year-old neighbor sits holding her year-old son against her shoulder. Below them on the first step is another young mother, her own child asleep at home.

She knew the little girl. In fact, her oldest daughter, the 9-year-old, went to the same school. And when the gunshots rang out half a block away, her first thoughts were those of any mother.

"The first thing that comes into your mind is, 'That could have been mine,' " she says.

Yet one night after 6-year-old Tiffany Smith was shot to death, an innocent bystander felled by bullets fired in a street argument, the young mothers and their children were back on the Westwood Avenue stoops, only yards from where the young child fell, struck in the head by a stray 9mm round.

Where else, they ask, can we go?

"I'm concerned. We're all concerned," says the woman, 25, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals from the street dealers who line Rosedale and Longwood streets almost every night.

"They have friends up and down the street," she says of her three daughters, who are old enough that they don't want to stay inside all the time. "You have to be out there with them. . . . There have been times when the shots rang out, and I had to run in the house and find them and say, 'Oh my God, where's my baby?' "

The Tuesday night slaying of young Tiffany Smith has aroused anger and frustration among parents in the Walbrook neighborhood, who say there is nowhere for their children to be ** safe. Not the playground down on Gertrude Street, a lot so infested with narcotics trafficking that the locals call it Dodge City. Not at what used to be the city recreation center, closed years ago.

"I guess it was nice of the mayor to come by and pay his respects," said Charles Jones, 30, who has lived in the west-side neighborhood for much of his life. "If it takes the murder of a 6-year-old to bring a politician, why come at all?"

Anger, frustration, dismay, even cynicism -- the only emotion absent in the comments of Walbrook parents has been that of shock. The sight of Tiffany Smith on the Rosedale Street sidewalk was appalling enough -- "You feel so helpless," says Mr. Jones, who witnessed the aftermath -- but shock no longer enters into it.

After all, this tragedy follows hard on the heels of last summer's critical wounding of 9-year-old Maurice Ready, who was hit in the left temple by a 9mm round loosed in the cross-fire of two East Baltimore drug dealers. The summer before, Derrell Lamar Goodwin, age 2, was wounded in West Baltimore by an irate gunman intent on murdering someone else, a gambling partner.

And a few weeks before that, 14-year-old Burnell Briggs, who had himself campaigned against drugs, was shot to death on an Irvington street corner -- a random victim of bullets intended for the rival of yet another drug trafficker.

"They don't care," says 20-year-old Tonya Smith of the men with the guns. "Their grandmother could be standing there."

Sitting on the porch of her West North Avenue home, Ms. Smith says she worries for both her young daughter and her niece: "You never know if someone's shooting or something. They could be passing drugs, and she could be right there."

And yet like the women on Westwood Avenue, Ms. Smith was nonetheless sitting on her stoop, cradling her roommate's infant, while drug touts worked passing cars at the corner of Longwood Street a block away.

City police say there is an inevitability to this kind of random slaying, this business of stray rounds hitting small children.

In the summer, the air inside Baltimore's inner-city row homes is 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the air on the steps and whole families pass late evening or even early morning hours on marble or cement, waiting for the breeze.

In the summer, too, there are no school hours, no reasons beyond discipline for a child to be inside a hot row house in the late evening.

And even in those families where a parent keeps close watch on a child, the few feet in front of a row house are the closest thing to a playground.

In the absence of a recreation center, neighbors on Westwood Avenue built a makeshift basketball court at one end of the block.

"We built it ourselves," says Mr. Jones. "We put it there because there was nowhere else to play."

But police made them take the hoop down.

"They'd rather us sell drugs than play basketball," he says. "Our priorities are out of whack."

And yet with each successive shooting of an innocent bystander, it becomes increasingly clear that a night spent on row house steps is nothing less then a calculated risk. The experts blame the rise in the number of semiautomatic weapons on city streets.

Slayings of innocent bystanders are not new to Baltimore, says Dennis S. Hill, the city police spokesman.

"The new ingredient is the number of shootings that are occurring in these neighborhoods," he said. "The number of semiautomatic weapons has escalated in Baltimore in the last five years."

A revolver is emptied after five to six rounds fired.

A semiautomatic weapon can fire as many as 18 rounds before anyone has to think to reload, and with many pistols, every shot fired after the first round requires only a single-action squeeze of the trigger.

Simply put, that means more bullets in the air.

"I think what's changing the face of crime in America today is the influx of the semiautomatic weapon, which has become as fashionable as the Hula Hoop of the 1950s," says Lawrence W. Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

"There are more bullets flying around and more innocent people catching them."

And Baltimore is not alone. In a 1989 study, Dr. Sherman looked at four cities -- New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington -- and found that the number of people killed or wounded by stray gunfire tripled from 1985 to 1988.

In some cities, Dr. Sherman learned that drug gangs actually have a name for innocent bystanders who are caught in cross-fire. They're called mushrooms, because they can pop up anywhere.

Thomas Reppetto, a former police officer who heads the watchdog Citizen's Crime Commission, says that in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example -- home to about 2 million people -- 19 innocent bystanders younger than 18 were killed and 47 wounded by cross-fire.

"Ordinary disputes . . . which a generation ago might be settled with a punch and 20 years ago might be settled with a Saturday night special, are being settled with a high-powered weapon," says Mr. Reppetto.

Tiffany Smith was killed by a round fired from a semiautomatic weapon, just as Maurice Ready was wounded last summer by a 9mm bullet. And it was a semiautomatic slug that claimed the life of young Burnell Briggs in 1989.

Says Jerry Wilson, chairman of the Crime Control Institute and a former Washington police chief: "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

None of which is news to the parents along West North Avenue.

"It's getting so bad where you really can't go anywhere," says the young mother on Westwood Avenue, who is planning to move somewhere else at the first opportunity. "I don't want my daughters growing up with the drugs."

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