The mayors of Baltimore and New York announced yesterday that the two cities will start sharing information about illegal weapons they seize, creating a database that gets around a congressionally imposed restriction on information local departments can obtain about guns seized outside their borders.
Federal law gives cities only limited access to the national database that tracks guns used in crimes. The mayors hope that other cities along the Interstate 95 corridor will sign on, and by sharing the information they will be able to spot trends in regional gun trafficking that they say are invisible to them under current system.
"This is the kind of system that the federal government should be doing, but they aren't," said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, speaking at a news conference in the atrium of City Hall. "Cities are fighting crime in isolation. Congress has a treasure trove of data and we are not allowed to see it."
The congressional limitation prevents city police departments from learning about the origins of illegal guns seized outside their borders.
"As mayors, we must work together to create joint solutions," said Mayor Sheila Dixon. "We face the same problems."
Mayors from Annapolis, Trenton, N.J., and Jersey City, N.J., also attended the news conference.
The mayors also will share ballistic data and investigative information including the price of weapons sold on the streets, nicknames of known drug traffickers, and the distances people are traveling to purchase illegal weapons. Dixon said that she expects the database to be in operation in the next several months.
The congressional restriction was written by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican. In an e-mailed statement from his spokesman, Tiahrt said that he has changed his law to make it easier for law enforcement to share information. But the mayors do not think he has gone far enough.
Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that once a city obtains federal information they can share that information with each other. However, the ATF cannot tell a Baltimore detective anything about the purchase of a gun that is found in New York.
"We will usually put the different [local] agencies in touch," Campbell said.
Clare Weber, a spokeswoman for the ATF in Baltimore, said that cities like New York and Baltimore can share ballistic data. The mayors' plans, however, would connect the ballistic information with other investigative information, a service that the federal government does not provide.
The idea of having local jurisdictions share the federal information has long been championed by Daniel Webster, an associate professor and co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
He said illicit gun markets are often fueled by common dealers, so, theoretically the same person could be selling illegal guns in New York and in Baltimore.
"Currently, each jurisdiction is a bit blinded by what is going on in the other jurisdiction," Webster said.
He praised Dixon and Bloomberg for kicking off the system rather than blaming a federal agency for gaps.
"We're going take more of a responsibly here," Webster said. "At the end of the day if homicides are going up in Baltimore, they don't point the finger at ATF, they point the finger at the local jurisdiction."
Dixon has made reducing the number of guns in Baltimore a law enforcement priority, and she has been active with Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, a group founded by Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
The initiative was also praised by gun-control advocates.
"It is great that these mayors are working to fill in the information gaps created by the federal secrecy law," said Daniel Vice, a senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The mayors spoke yesterday in front of tables displaying 64 guns seized over the weekend from the home of an Elkton man who was charged with making an illegal gun sale.
Many of guns that the police took had handwritten price tags dangling off them. Handguns were in the $300s. Rifles were priced between $400 and $600.