Shining a light on gun offenses

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore could become the first big city to publicize names, photographs and home addresses of people who are convicted of shootings or other gun-related crimes, the latest twist on a national crime prevention trend of exposing names of certain types of criminals.

Legislation that Mayor Sheila Dixon introduced in the City Council last week would direct the Police Department to create a database for gun offenders that is similar to the existing online statewide sex offender list. She said she would like the names to be public, and offenders would have to register with the department, in person, every six months or face a misdemeanor charge and possible jail time.

Other cities - including Chicago, San Francisco and Boston - that have seen increases in gun violence in the past few years are considering similar measures for gun offenses, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police endorsed the concept at its annual conference in Boston last fall. New York City began a registry this year, but it is not open to the public.

"This will help inform the community about some of the activities taking place in their neighborhood and hopefully will act as a deterrent to people not to get involved with illegal gun activity," Dixon said in an e-mailed statement. "I am hoping people will just think twice about picking up a gun because of the risk of the registry and the long-term stigma attached to being placed on it." She expects a hearing on the bill Aug. 8.

Though some criminal justice experts endorsed the gun offender registry as a law enforcement tool, they questioned the value of publicizing that information, saying it would likely not be a deterrent and could further stigmatize ex-convicts attempting to find jobs and housing after serving their prison sentences. In Boston, opposition to public disclosure has slowed passage of similar gun offender database legislation.

Dixon said she believes most employers do criminal background checks anyway, but she noted that the bill leaves the final decision about whether to make the database public up to the Police Department.

Acting police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III would not say whether the police would favor making the information public but indicated that he would not want the public disclosure aspect of it to be a deal killer. "I would be the most cautious about that aspect," he said. "I wouldn't want to lose the bill, or unravel the bill."

About 50 percent of homicide suspects and about one-third of shooting suspects had prior gun convictions, according to figures provided by the mayor's office.

"We're not doing this in a vacuum," Bealefeld said, adding that offenders tend to move from address to address and can be difficult to track without an organized system.

Dixon and other political leaders compare the concept to the statewide sex offender registry that has existed in Maryland since October 1995.

The database has had over 210,000 searches per week this month, said David P. Wolinski, who runs the state program for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. There are about 5,300 offenders on the site.

Law enforcement in other states used the sex offender template to help with another pressing problem: methamphetamine production labs. The highly toxic labs can explode.

"It is to help citizens have a way to inform their law enforcement agency of any suspicious activity in their neighborhoods," said Kristin Helm, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which runs the database.

The Tennessee site went live in March 2005, and since then, 765 meth manufacturers have been convicted and added to their list, Helm said. When that registry went into effect, some criticized the state for making available a list of possible drug dealers to meth addicts.

James Gelles, the dean of University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, said that for deterrence to work, the offender must want to avoid a stigma.

"With these registries, the idea is: 'Let's do something. Let's stigmatize people. Let's out them,'" he said. "Gun crimes are crimes of passion, or to increase self-esteem. They are not calculating in the stigma cost" if they shoot someone. In fact, the ethos of "street credibility" often means that a gun crime could enhance stature.

In Boston, City Councilor Robert Consalvo has sponsored legislation to start a database open to the public, but he has encountered criticism from those who believe the registry would marginalize felons who have already been punished for their crimes.

"People were concerned that you might have one kid who made a mistake. Why are you going to hold him accountable?" he said. After a hearing, Consalvo said he was changing his bill so offenders who do not commit additional crimes in a five-year window would be removed from the database. "People could work their way off that list," he said.

Those convicted of gun crimes in Baltimore would need to re-register every three years - a time frame Dixon said was selected based on recidivism data.

The National Rifle Association criticized the bill. Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the organization, noted that the Baltimore Police Department's union president opposes the idea.

The president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, Paul M. Blair Jr., has criticized the proposal as a waste of time. "All you are doing is creating another bureaucracy, spending city money that will not save one life," he said in a recent interview.

"We're on the side of law enforcement," Arulanandam said. "Anytime there is a project put forward, it involves money and it involves manpower. We believe that those resources, finances can be better spent elsewhere," he said, listing better police pay and hiring more officers as more worthy projects.

Dixon said that the Police Department's new gun task force would be charged with enforcing the registry. She expects the list of offenders contain about 500 names per

An article about a proposed gun offender registry in yesterday's editions incorrectly stated the terms under which a person convicted of a gun crime would have to register. An offender would have to register for three years.The Sun regrets the errors.
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