A daughter's plea for tougher gun laws

I was thrilled to learn that Baltimore recently received a federal Smart Policing Grant to fund and evaluate gun-suppression efforts. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's commitment to reduce gun violence and increase public safety is commendable. Together, the mayor and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III have worked to achieve significant decreases in violent crime, compared to past years. Specifically, weekend violence is down by almost 16 percent. Still, gun violence exists. As long as there are victims of violent crime, we must continue to fight back. One victim is one too many.

Our justice system must work collectively to keep violent offenders like the ones who killed my father, former Councilman Ken Harris, off our streets. It is not enough to arrest criminals, but the State's Attorney's Office must prosecute each offender to the fullest extent of the law. In addition, judges and legislators must employ tough sentences.

Under the current system, a first-time gun offender is convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to no less than 30 days and no more than three years in jail. Repeat gun offenders are remanded to no less than one year and no more than 10 years in jail.

This is justice? With such lenient sentences, what message are we sending deviants — or society?

The Smart Policing Grant is a wonderful tool to help police officers arrest gun offenders. However, lenient sentences soon place the same offenders back on the streets to commit more crimes. Too often, an individual who carries a gun does so for only one purpose — to kill.

While I am pleased with the recent convictions of the three men arrested for the fatal shooting of my father, none of them should have been free to walk the streets. A month before my father's murder, a Baltimore County court sentenced Charles McGaney to just 85 days in jail for a handgun violation. Yes, a sentence of less than three months — and it was not even Mr. McGaney's first brush with the law.

Similarly, by 2008, Gary Collins was guilty of an array of crimes, including misdemeanor drug possession, first-degree burglary, attempted robbery and handgun violations, but he was deemed safe by the courts to roam the streets. With tougher sentences, these criminals would not have been on the streets and my father would be alive today.

Our Maryland legislators must implement strict mandatory sentences to get violent criminals off our streets. The offense for carrying an illegal, loaded firearm should be elevated to a felony and carry a mandatory minimum sentence of at least three years in jail. New York enacted a similar law in 2006 and achieved a 17 percent reduction in homicides. Today, Maryland judges may find mitigating circumstances to issue gun offenders lenient penalties. Mandatory sentences would encourage and enforce strict penalties for handgun violations.

My father's death has left my family devastated. Dad's murder was not only a loss to my family but the entire city. He was a crusader for justice who had enormous potential and countless ideas to improve our city. However, my family is not the only family to grieve, as hundreds of Baltimore families have lost loved ones to gun violence. It is time we send a message of intolerance to gun offenders.

As it stands today, criminals receive more chances than victims do. My father did not receive a second chance at life. But Charles McGaney and Gary Collins were working on their second chance long before their fatal encounter with Ken Harris — when the courts handed them overly lenient sentences for handgun convictions.

A major goal of the justice system is to deter individuals from criminal acts. Our current handgun laws do not deter offenders. These individuals do not just stop with one conviction, but as we have seen in the cases of Mr. McGaney, Mr. Collins and countless other criminals, gun offenders often become repeat offenders, and the severity of the crimes they commit tends to escalate.

As long as criminals can walk the streets with guns and without the least bit of fear or respect for the judicial system, any of us can easily become a victim. We cannot wait for criminals to act before we act. I urge our legislators to pass new, tough handgun laws to save other families from experiencing the pain and loss my family endures.

Nicole Harris-Crest is a community advocate in Baltimore City who is enrolled in her first year of law school at the University of Baltimore. Her e-mail is nicoleharriscrest@gmail.com.

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