Linking efforts on gun crime


WE AT THE U.S. Attorney's Office were glad to seeThe Sun acknowledge that for the past five years this office, through Project Disarm, has been using the federal felon-in-possession law to prosecute state firearm offenders from Baltimore City.

Last year, the number of Disarm indictments expanded by 66 percent. One-third of all indictments presented by the Baltimore Office were brought under Project Disarm, representing an unprecedented commitment of federal resources to the prosecution of gun crimes in Baltimore.

While your Feb. 6 editorial, "It's past time for crackdown on guns," welcomed the efforts of this office, you observed that a more comprehensive approach to firearm violence was needed.

We agree.

We are also encouraged by recent events that provide a reason to hope a comprehensive federal/state strategy is at hand.

On Feb. 1 at a meeting of state, federal and local law enforcement officials, plans for a comprehensive strategy were announced.

Elements of this plan include providing immediate funding to increase the number of prosecutors in the State's Attorney's Office FIVE Unit, aggressive state prosecution of felons-in-possession and utilization of state five-year minimum mandatory sentencing laws.

In conjunction with these steps is the anticipated passage of a tougher penalty for violating of the existing Maryland felon-in-possession law. Unlike Virginia, which until recently had relatively weak state firearm laws, Maryland law has long provided severe sentences for offenders. These laws are about to become tougher as Maryland legislators consider an amendment to provide a minimum mandatory five-year, no-parole sentence.

Combined with Disarm, we feel that these steps will, for the first time, provide a comprehensive response to all firearm violations in Baltimore City.

There is no simple solution to the firearm violence problem in Baltimore, and, despite the allure of such thinking, it is a serious mistake to expect that the problem can be solved by the federal government alone.

Disarm cases already constitute an unprecedented one-third of all cases prosecuted by this office.

At the same time, demands for the attention of the relatively few assistant U.S. attorneys are also increasing. Complex drug trafficking cases, bank robberies, child sexual exploitation, money laundering, environmental crimes, complex white collar fraud cases, health care fraud, mortgage flipping, political and police corruption, wiretap investigations and racketeering cases, are all of vital concern to the community. Many of these crimes can be prosecuted only by this office. To hear these cases, there are only seven active federal trial judges sitting in Baltimore.

Baltimore City has a capable criminal justice system that should be energized, not abandoned.

Realistically, the bulk of the approximately 2,000 firearm arrests made by Baltimore police officers each year must be prosecuted by state prosecutors, in state courts, before judges who should be expected to impose sentences required by state law.

There are some 30 city Circuit Court and 26 city District Court judges able to hear these cases in a system that is designed to handle the volume generated by city firearms arrests.

The "will" to accept such large numbers of state cases, which would far exceed the numbers prosecuted by any U.S. Attorney's Office in the country, including Richmond, is not the issue

Those who advocate federalizing all firearm cases overlook that whatever is gained by federal prosecution would be lost if the federal system had to deal with that number of cases. Moreover, it is not necessary so long as state courts and prosecutors use the powerful statutory tools that are already in place.

Lynne A. Battaglia is U.S. attorney for Maryland.

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