The weapon of choice

The Baltimore Sun

ANortheast Baltimore man shoots and kills his girlfriend, drives their two children to a relative's house, and then returns to their home and kills himself. Two young men trade gunfire on a street in Northeast Baltimore and a high school student gets caught in the cross-fire and dies. A murder witness is killed in a drive-by shooting, and the suspected hit man is a 15-year-old Baltimore boy.

A gun too easily had played a role in each of these murders.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has tried to focus attention on the proliferation of illegal guns in Baltimore. It's why she met recently with New York's mayor, who sued out-of-state dealers over illegal sales. But Baltimore's problem is not New York's. Most illegal guns here are local buys.

And in murder cases, the gun is increasingly the weapon of choice. Since 2002, gun-related homicides in Baltimore have steadily increased, from 72 percent of all murders then, to 77 percent in 2003, to 82 percent in 2006, according to administration statistics. The increase suggests that guns are plentiful and available despite the recovery by the police of 2,551 guns this year, an increase of 14 percent over last year.

Cracking down on rogue dealers and people who buy guns for ex-felons must be a central thrust of any anti-gun strategy. But when gun felons reoffend or violate their probation by possessing a gun, prison isn't always where they end up. In fact, 50 percent of murder suspects in Baltimore have been convicted of gun crimes in the past and are cycling through the system. Judges can't waver on taking a hard line on gun crimes; the violence in this city is too pervasive not to.

Unlike in New York, more than 85 percent of guns used in crimes in Baltimore are from Maryland. And while that statistic should put the focus directly on dealers who aren't obeying the law, it also suggests a robust underground market that keeps illegal guns circulating. When police arrested a convicted sex offender in July, they found 38 guns in his home, only 12 of them registered to him. How did he get the other guns? And who needs 12 guns to begin with?

Criminals with guns don't deserve a second chance to use a gun again. City and federal prosecutors are trying to keep gun felons off the street by having more gun cases handled in federal court, where sentences are stiffer - and imposed. But the majority of gun crimes remain the purview of state courts. The unequivocal message in Baltimore has to be: Gun crimes mean jail time.

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