Arms race escalates on Baltimore's streets

It is one arms race that has never come to the negotiatin table -- the street-corner gun competition of drug dealers and stickup men. It is an arms race in which the only winner is the gun industry, and the biggest losers are innocent people caught in the cross-fire.

A decade ago, the guns that most worried the public were Saturday Night Specials, a loose category of weapons distinguished by cheap construction and low price, which could put deadly force in the hands of any kid with $25 or $50 to spare.


Maryland eventually passed a landmark bill to ban the cheap handguns and then defeated a $6 million effort by the National Rifle Association and its allies to block it by referendum. But by the time the law passed in 1988, the Saturday Night Special was already out of style among the young men responsible for most gun assaults and murders.

Flush with profits from the ballooning cocaine trade, they were moving on to more expensive, higher-quality revolvers and self-loading semiautomatic pistols. Four years after the law passed, the standard drug gun has become the 9mm semiautomatic pistol, often costing $500 or more. Still larger and more fearsome-looking semiautomatic "assault pistols" or "machine pistols" are becoming increasingly common, police and dealers say, along with such accessories as bullet-proof vests and laser sights.


"The drug dealers keep upgrading their arsenal to keep up with the stick-up boys," says Police Agent Timothy Devine, who investigates shootings in Baltimore's Western District. "If you have a two-shot derringer, and you miss with those two shots, and the other guy has a 9mm [semiautomatic pistol] that holds 17 rounds, you're out of luck."

When he came to the Western District seven years ago, Agent Devine says, revolvers were common and 9mm semiautomatics were appearing among drug dealers. "Now, it's moved on to Tec-9s and Uzis [both assault pistols] and banana clips and Teflon cop-killer bullets," he says. Baltimore police have themselves switched from a six-shot, .38-caliber revolver to a 9mm semiautomatic holding 17 bullets.

The escalation in street firepower involves the size and number of the bullets and the speed with which they can be fired. In a revolver, the bullets, usually six in number, are held in a revolving cylinder. A semiautomatic loads bullets from a magazine, or "clip," that can hold from 10 to 50 or even more rounds.

A semiautomatic weapon fires a bullet every time the trigger is pulled. A fully automatic weapon, also known as a machine gun or submachine gun, starts firing when the trigger is pulled and does not stop until the trigger is released.

The increasing number of bystanders hit by stray bullets in drug-related shootouts is partly a consequence of the gun escalation, police say. Few of the young gunmen armed by the drug trade are trained marksmen, and they often spray fire wildly the kick of the gun throws their aim off. Moreover, the bigger, more destructive bullets are far deadlier at greater distances than those from Saturday Night Specials.