Baltimore police, feds outline gun strategy as shootings drop

The guns, all 76 of them, covered three tables.

There were cheap .38s, pump-action shotguns, a few long guns modified to resemble assault weapons, and a replica of an M-16. There were hunting rifles more appropriate for the wilds of Western Maryland. Tiny guns that could fit in a purse or pocket. Weapons that could belong to a militia.

These are the guns seized by Baltimore police officers in the past 10 days.

Authorities put them on display at police headquarters to highlight crime reductions and a surge in weapon seizures that has netted a total of 1,164 illegal firearms this year. Meanwhile, the 99 people killed in the first six months of this year is the fewest over the same time frame in the past quarter-century.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III stared down at the arsenal displayed before him, the mayor, the federal prosecutor and the local head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.

"It certainly is impressive," he noted, shaking his head. "It's menacing, threatening."

But in reality, the city's top cop was thoroughly unimpressed.

"We've all seen tables like this before," Bealefeld said. "I've seen bigger tables. I've seen smaller tables. I've seen more guns."

The commissioner basically admitted that the media show timed to the six-month mark of the year was a repeat performance. It proved, he said, "that we still have a hell of a lot of work to do."

What was not a repeat performance were some of the upbeat crime stats. The 44 nonfatal shootings in June was the fewest for the month since the department started keeping track in the 1970s. What nobody said was that it's an achievement when the city averages 1.5 shootings a day.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake picked up a black 9mm Glock. She praised her federal partners and noted that despite the tough fiscal times, "we will continue to ratchet up the effort to go after illegal guns."

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said his office successfully prosecuted 206 people on gun charges in 2009 and has already targeted 131 people this year. Defendants in the federal system typically get 10 to 30 years in a prison far away from Baltimore and with no chance to be released early on parole or probation.

"We don't celebrate that 99 people were killed this year, but we do celebrate the people who weren't shot," Rosenstein said.

Despite the show of weapons, Bealefeld wanted to talk about something other than what he described as the "proverbial smoking gun." He talked about the gun registry, a list of 425 people who live in Baltimore and have been convicted of gun offenses.

Cops routinely knock on their doors, much as officers do to check up on registered sex offenders, "so that they know that we know who they are." It's a way of trying to keep track of guns that proliferate in some city neighborhoods.

The idea is to not just arrest people and take their guns, but to find out where they got them and how they were going to be used. That kind of intelligence, Bealefeld stressed, has helped drive down the shooting and homicide numbers.

Bealefeld singled out one Baltimore police detective, Chris Fink, who shot two men, one fatally, and was himself wounded in February in a shootout with a gunman on a porch of a Northwest Baltimore house. He said the officer, who saw combat in Iraq as a Marine, recovered and went right back out on the streets to seize more guns. Now he's in a class to learn more tactics.

Still shaking his head over the tables full of guns, Bealefeld noted that despite the arsenal before him, the bad guys with guns keep coming. He knows that his cops can fill tables like this every two weeks.

Said Bealefeld, "We need to be focused on the hard work ahead."

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