PHILADELPHIA -- Baseball bats -- cheap, legal and readil available -- are increasingly a weapon of choice in Philadelphia and elsewhere for crimes of assault, and some lawmakers would like to define them as such.
Bats, both wooden and metal, are extremely popular because under the law, they are not a weapon but a recreational tool, law enforcement officials say. Drug dealers and jealous lovers in Pennsylvania know that if they use bats, they will not be treated as severely by the judicial system as if they had used a gun, which carries a five-year mandatory sentence.
Statistics on the number of crimes committed with baseball bats in Maryland, or Baltimore, were not available yesterday.
Agent Doug Price, a Baltimore police spokesman, said he had no statistics to show whether the use of bats has increased as a problem, although "certainly for the Orioles, we know they have."
Bats, which sell for as little as $8, are second only to guns as the favored weapon in aggravated assaults in many of Philadelphia's neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham -- joined by a detective from the Philadelphia Police Department and the chief of Albert Einstein Medical Center's trauma-critical care unit -- askedthe state Senate Judiciary Committee to change Pennsylvania law to add baseball bats to the list of "instruments of crime."
They want to make possession of a bat, when there is criminal intent to use it, a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by prison.
State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, who is sponsoring the legislation, said that when he introduced the bill in the spring, many colleagues were unaware that baseball bats "were a serious problem."
Baseball-bat assaults are not limited to Philadelphia, according to Ms. Abraham. "It's a phenomenon all over," she said.
In Maryland, legal authorities said baseball bats are not specifically listed as a "weapon" in the state's criminal laws, but could be construed as one under a statute covering an assortment of weapons carried openly with the intent to injure anyone in an unlawful manner.
The misdemeanor offense carries maximum penalties of a $1,000 fine and three years in prison, according to Millicent Edwards Gordon, the assistant attorney general who is counsel for the state police.
In Pennsylvania, not everyone favors the legislation, which would add tire irons, stun guns, common burglary tools and baseball bats to the list of instruments of crime.
Peter Rosalsky, a chief at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, argued that baseball bats in Pennsylvania are lawfully used "thousands of times," while incidents of criminal use "are extremely rare."
"Forgers use pens. Drug addicts inhale cocaine by using straws.
Drunk drivers use cars," he said. "People use a lot of instrument in committing their crimes."
But to prohibit items "not inherently criminally used" is both "unnecessary to protect society and a needless proliferation of the criminal law," Mr. Rosalsky said.
But Ms. Abraham rejected those arguments. "It's been suggested by opponents of this bill that police will be locking up Little Leaguers on their way to softball practice," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
At Einstein Medical Center, doctors in the trauma unit noticed a "steady increase" in baseball-bat assaults. In 1989 and 1990, a hospital study found that baseball-bat assaults were behind gunshot and stabbing injuries but ahead of injuries from burns or motorcycle accidents.
"Drug dealers use bats to punish competitors and delinquent clients," said Stanton F. Carroll, chief of Einstein's trauma-critical care unit. "Gangs use bats to drive away rivals, and husband and wives -- and friends -- use them to finish arguments often fueled by drugs and alcohol."
"Pennsylvania courts have refused to hold that baseball bats are instruments of crime," Ms. Abraham said. "Since courts will not ,, include this weapon, in order to deter and punish the baseball-bat-wielding attacker, it is up to the legislature."