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City might join suit to stem illegal guns

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- Suggesting that she might consider joining a ground-breaking lawsuit to stem the flow of illegal weapons, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon met yesterday with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg - the architect of that litigation - to talk about ways both cities can improve education and fight crime.

Dixon, who has unveiled a handful of novel approaches this year to deal with guns that enter Baltimore, said the city is collecting information on people who are convicted of gun crimes and will use the data to determine whether other measures, such as directly suing gun dealers, are appropriate.

Dixon's trip to New York came a week after she won the Sept. 11 Democratic primary election, virtually guaranteeing that she will serve a full four-year term. Her meetings here also took place after Baltimore's deadliest weekend of the year, in which six people were killed - including three who were shot on the street in broad daylight.

"All of these incidents that are happening - all of these victims that are being killed - are from illegal guns," Dixon said as she stood outside New York's City Hall. "We need to make sure that our base is solid and that we track this information. Once we are through [with that], I will consult with our city solicitor's office about the potential of joining the lawsuit."

New York filed a federal lawsuit last year against 27 gun dealers - including some in Pennsylvania and Virginia - for what the Bloomberg administration contended were illegal gun sales. Hundreds of those weapons were used to commit crimes in New York, according to the lawsuit. Fourteen dealers have since settled with New York and have agreed to have a court-appointed official monitor their sales.

The lawsuit, part of a broader effort by the Bloomberg administration to combat illegal guns, followed a months-long sting operation by private investigators hired by the city who posed as buyers at gun dealers along the East Coast. The investigators, working in teams, made what are known as straw purchases, in which one customer selects a gun and pays for it while another steps in to fill out background forms.

Straw purchases

The straw purchases, which are prohibited by federal law, allow someone with a criminal history to obtain a gun - or multiple guns - because the background check is run on someone else who does not have previous convictions. According to the lawsuit, many of those weapons are then brought into cities with stricter gun laws.

Baltimore and about 240 other cities have joined an advocacy group created by Bloomberg called the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, but several experts said that no other city has attempted to file a lawsuit similar to New York's. Bloomberg said he was not surprised that more cities have not attempted similar litigation on their own.

"Only New York has the scale and the expertise and just the resources to go and to mount some of these suits, or the sting operations," he said. "Keep in mind, when we do it, it's really on behalf of all of these cities."

While that might be true, Baltimore is far worse off than New York when it comes to the use of guns in violent crime as calculated on a per-capita basis. New York, with a population of more than 8.2 million, had 596 homicides last year. Baltimore, with a population of about 630,000, had 276 homicides. While not all of the killings involved a gun, most did.

Baltimore's high homicide count became a defining issue in this year's primary election, with the number of killings on pace to exceed 300 for the first time since the 1990s. The frequency of both homicides and nonfatal shootings had slowed recently - though it was still significantly higher than last year.

Six people were killed over the weekend, pushing Baltimore's homicide count up to 223 - about 15 percent higher than at the same time last year. Three men were fatally shot during the day, and another three were killed at night.

Previous convictions

City officials say about half of homicide suspects and about one-third of shooting suspects have had previous gun convictions.

This year, the Dixon administration created a program called GunStat that attempts to chronicle gun cases from start to finish - including the types of weapons seized, bail amounts, the defendants' criminal histories and the court's rulings. The effort, in part, will help focus attention on individuals who police say have used guns in previous crimes but are back on the streets.

Baltimore officials said that while the majority of guns used in crime in New York come from out of state, more than 85 percent in Baltimore come from within Maryland.

In May, the city created a gun task force made up of local, regional and federal authorities that are working, in part, to ensure that the state's dealers are selling guns to licensed buyers.

The city has teamed up with federal prosecutors to go after gun offenders. Through July, federal indictments were handed up for 114 defendants, up 48 percent over the same period last year.

Dixon also introduced legislation in the City Council this year to create a gun registry - modeled after a similar program in New York - that would collect names, photographs and addresses of people who have been convicted of gun-related crimes. The legislation was approved by the City Council on Monday, and Dixon said she expects to sign the measure into law Oct. 1.

Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Cortland, who has written a book on the politics of gun control, credited Bloomberg's administration with making progress through the lawsuit. But he suggested that it might be harder for Baltimore to pursue a similar idea given its proximity to the states where gun laws have traditionally been looser.

The underlying issue for cities trying to address the issue of guns, he said, is that much of the regulation is done by the federal government, not municipalities.

"Bloomberg is swimming upstream in that regard," Spitzer said. "He's had some success, but it's become tougher."

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman with the National Rifle Association, said cities already have a tool to deal with crimes in which guns are used - that is, to prosecute the criminals rather than the gun dealers who might or might not be aware that the weapons they sell end up in the hands of criminals.

"These politicians ought to quit holding media events and media availabilities and stop talking about reducing crime and start working with federal and state and local prosecutors in making sure that gun crimes are prosecuted unequivocally, 100 percent of the time," he said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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