Crime Scenes: City leaders press for tougher gun laws

In what by now might seem a futile ritual, Baltimore's mayor and top law enforcement officials made their seventh annual pilgrimage to Annapolis on Thursday to press lawmakers for tougher gun laws that they say will curtail violence in one of America's deadliest cities.

In past years, proposed legislation either stalled in committee, or, as happened last year, successfully made it to the full legislature but not in time for a vote before the session ended.

The latest bills — which would add 10 years to the five-year mandatory sentence for a felon in possession of a handgun and make illegal gun possession a felony with a mandatory 18-month sentence — might have a hard time this year as well.

Worried that lawmakers view the bills as restricting the rights of Marylanders even if they help imprison gunmen in Baltimore, city leaders tried to broaden their appeal with testimony from a wide array of personalities, hoping to sway opinions with both lawyerly prose and by tugging at heartstrings.

While the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard Thursday's testimony, is regarded as friendly to the legislation, its members still grilled city leaders. Their concerns: giving too much discretion to prosecutors and potentially arresting normally law-abiding, gun-owning citizens caught by a law meant to target violent offenders.

Still, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has made curtailing gun crime a centerpiece of her administration, echoing her police commissioner's "bad guys with guns" slogan, and she devoted a good chunk of her recent State of the City address to the importance of getting gun legislation passed.

In an interview, she noted that "We got so close last year" to getting new gun laws passed and that the strategy this year "is to tell our story in a more impactful way. Hopefully, the legislature will understand that this is not just about Baltimore City."

Rawlings-Blake and new State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein testified, but so did the Howard County executive, the top prosecutors of Baltimore and Prince George's counties, and the police union president and a police lieutenant for Anne Arundel County.

A minister who was shot in 1992, and who still has three bullets lodged in his chest, offered his support, as did the daughter of a former Baltimore City councilman who was fatally shot and a city police officer who was wounded on North Calvert Street in November.

"One man changed my life," said Nicole Harris-Crest, whose father, Kenneth N. Harris, was killed in the council district he had represented. "One bullet destroyed my family. One gun took my father's life."

One of the assailants in her father's killing had been released from jail in Baltimore County on a handgun conviction 85 days before the shooting. "Criminals are deemed safe to roam the streets by our courts, and innocent lives are snuffed out," Harris-Crest told the committee members.

Baltimore Officer Todd Strohman said that had the proposed laws been in place in November, the man accused of shooting him would not have been on the street. He had been arrested 10 times, five times involving guns, and gotten out of prison 17 days before the shooting, having served two years of a 12-year sentence for armed robbery.

The officer's remarks were brief but compelling. He recalled confronting a suspicious man and ordering him to take his hands out of his pockets. "He then smirked at me," Strohman said, and shot him once in the shoulder. He said the bullet ricocheted off a small metal plate on his uniform, missed an artery by 1 millimeter and lodged 2 inches above his heart.

Police rolled out disturbing statistics — 82 percent of first-time gun offenders in Baltimore get suspended sentences with no jail time, and the rest serve an average of four months in jail. To fix that, city officials want to increase the penalty for illegal possession of a loaded handgun or firearm from a 30-day misdemeanor to a mandatory 18-month felony.

Several lawmakers on the committee expressed concern that the law would ensnare a legal gun owner who forgot to unload his bullets as he drove back from the firing range, or forgot to take the gun out of his briefcase at the airport, as happened recently with banking executive Edwin F. Hale Sr.

"It is unsafe? Yes," said John H. Josselyn, the legislative vice president of Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore. "Is it a mistake? Yes. But should you be a felon and spend 18 months in jail? This bill is overreaching."

Bernstein and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger sought to ease fears by noting that prosecutors can still opt to charge a gun crime as a misdemeanor, which could result in minimal or no jail time, but that this bill would offer another, tougher option for repeat offenders. And, they said, it doesn't affect people with legal gun permits, such as Hale.

City officials have complained in the past about being treated "rudely" in Annapolis and said they felt lawmakers treated the city as if it were an island not connected to the rest of the state. The testimony from suburban officials was meant to combat that image.

But it was hard to shake the "Baltimore" from the bills.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Republican from Washington County in Western Maryland, agreed that "there is a very serious problem with guns in Baltimore," but he noted, "We do not have as serious a problem in other places in the state."

At one point, an exasperated Bernstein, in his first appearance before an Annapolis committee, said: "We're trying to stop people from driving into our city with loaded firearms. I don't think it's too much to ask."

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