Federal prosecutors said Friday that a Justice Department initiative to stem gun violence by better targeting illegal gun traffickers will pay dividends in the local region, empowering officials to share more information and ballistics data and punish those who subvert existing laws to arm violent criminals.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur said the “Project Guardian” initiative, announced earlier this week by Attorney General William Barr, will enhance collaboration between him and his regional counterparts in Virginia and the District of Columbia.
It allows prosecutors to work with local, state and federal law enforcement partners — including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives — to track down and prosecute straw purchasers and other illegal traders supplying the region’s trigger pullers with their firepower.
“We know that violent gangs and organized crime rings do not respect state lines. They are opportunistic. They are out breaking the law and preying on our communities to make a profit,” Hur said. “We want to make sure we go back and capture the entire distribution chain.”
Thomas Cullen, U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia, said investigations have long shown that guns cross state lines in the region before they are used to commit crimes.
“Too many guns from Virginia are ending up on the streets of D.C., Baltimore and other cities in the Northeast,” Cullen said. “This is tragic and unacceptable, and together we need to do more to solve this particular problem.”
The prosecutors’ comments came two days after Barr announced the initiative and a day after the latest American school shooting, in which a 16-year-old gunman is alleged to have shot five classmates, two fatally, at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California.
They also come at a time of heated partisan debate around gun control, and whether and how the nation should confront the fact that mass shootings are now a common occurrence and daily gun violence permeates many cities, including Baltimore. Politicians at the federal level have been unable to agree on legislation in recent years that would put more restrictions on the purchases of firearms, including through universal background checks.
Barr’s message this week was that laws already on the books — including against straw purchasers, or those who illegally buy guns for others — could be better enforced.
“Gun crime remains a pervasive problem in too many communities across America,” Barr said Wednesday in a statement. He said Project Guardian would "strengthen our efforts to reduce gun violence by allowing the federal government and our state and local partners to better target offenders who use guns in crimes and those who try to buy guns illegally.”
The program hinges in part on an increased use of ATF technology that compares ballistics markings in a national database to make connections between gun cases regardless of where they occur.
In 2018, the ATF traced nearly 11,100 firearms in Maryland, nearly half of them pistols, and identified the state where the weapon originated in more than 7,200 of those cases. More than half originated in Maryland, but more than 1,000 came from Virginia. More than 400 came from Pennsylvania, and 260 from West Virginia. Others came from every other state in the country, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam.
Baltimore this week surpassed 300 homicides for the year, with a month and a half left to go, making 2019 the fifth year in a row in which the city reached that deadly benchmark. The vast majority of the killings have been committed using firearms.
Hur and his counterparts addressed the violence in Baltimore repeatedly Friday. They said they were committed to increasing the likelihood that those up and down the region’s illegal firearm distribution chains are brought to justice.
“They’re responsible for putting these deadly weapons into a stream of deadly commerce,” Cullen said.
Hur said his office already is engaged in prosecuting gun offenders in Baltimore through its Project Exile, in which federal prosecutors bring the full weight of federal sentencing guidelines to bear in gun cases that originate at the state level. And he said his office already is bringing successful cases against gun traffickers who operate on a regional level.
Hur noted a 15-year sentence recently handed down to a Baltimore man named Terrel Elliott Jr., who used Instagram to sell firearms to buyers in the region, including minors. Hur also mentioned another recent case in which he said a Washington suspect was dealing guns in Arlington, Va., and in College Park.
Hur said his office is on track to prosecute 50% more violent crime cases in Baltimore this year than last year, and Project Guardian will help keep up the pressure.
“We have our foot on the gas pedal and we’re going to keep it there," he said, “because there is more work to be done.”