One of the sickest, saddest crimes we've seen around here occurred on the afternoon of Jan. 9, when a man in Northeast Baltimore allegedly used an AR-15-type assault rifle and a 9mm handgun to kill two men — a 47-year-old neighbor and a 40-year-old contractor who had done some work for him.
This hot-blooded horror in broad daylight was apparently all about a parking space.
The guy with the guns, 34-year-old Dennis Padgett, had a beef with the neighbor over the parking space in front of his house, according to police. Padgett allegedly chased down and shot his neighbor in the middle of traffic on Northern Parkway.
And that was just moments after Padgett shot the contractor at close range as he stood near his pickup truck on Glenkirk Road. The contractor was apparently caught in the middle of this dispute — in the wrong place at the wrong time. His 4-year-old son, fresh from a day in preschool, was sitting in the truck at the time, according to the boy's mother.
The details are stunning, even by Baltimore standards. I've been thinking about that little boy sitting in his daddy's truck since reading reporter Jessica Anderson's follow-up story on the parking space homicides in Thursday's Baltimore Sun. So you brood on that detail for a few minutes — a child maybe seeing his father die in such a brutal way — and then your eyes go to this part of the police report:
"A loaded AR-15 type assault rifle was recovered from the trash can behind 3932 Glenkirk Road. A large amount of ammunition of the same caliber as well as other various calibers were recovered from the upstairs bedroom of Dennis Padgett. A shotgun and pistol were also recovered from the bedroom. An ammo box containing several other magazines of the same type and caliber of the AR-15 type assault rifle ... were also located in the bedroom."
That's an extravagant amount of firepower for the defense of one modest home and a parking space.
Of course, even with one gun, Padgett could have done a lot of damage.
But, with no gun at all, his neighbor probably lives. With no gun, the 4-year-old boy still has a father. With no gun, in the heat of the moment, Padgett probably realizes he's outnumbered and will get nowhere in a fight; maybe he curses his neighbor, goes inside his house and sulks.
This is not the first time a man killed another over something trivial because he had a gun handy. (I remember a fatal shooting years ago in an argument over the final slice of pizza.) If people want to have guns around, that's their business; they live with the risks.
But there's another layer of outrage to the Glenkirk Road parking space homicides: Padgett had no business having guns at all, according to police. He's a convicted felon and, under the law, his possession of those guns is illegal.
"There was a variety of ammunition — .223, 9mm and .45-caliber rounds — seized from Padgett's home," said Detective Ruganzu Howard. "The weapons used to kill the victims were an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle using .223 caliber rounds and a 9mm pistol, which has not been recovered. Mr. Padgett was a convicted felon and prohibited from possessing any firearms."
Howard said the rifle used in the killing had been stolen.
But by whom? When and where?
Here's an audacious idea: Let's have the police track down the sources of Padgett's weapons to determine where they came from. Did Padgett steal them? Did he buy them on the black market? If the latter, from whom?
Bringing the killer of Robert Thomas, Padgett's neighbor, and Troy Preston, the contractor, to justice is one thing. But this case should not end there.
If Padgett bought his guns and ammunition, then the sellers should be held criminally liable.
"You could argue that they are accomplices to murder," says Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and one of the nation's leading experts on firearms laws.
Police confiscate thousands of weapons every year and make numerous arrests of people prohibited from possessing them, but getting to the black-market suppliers has not been the priority it should be. Tracking down the sources of illegal firearms is tough.
"You're not going to find a lot of consensus on [gun regulation]," says Webster. "But a fundamental objective is to keep guns from people who are too dangerous to have them. Whether you are a gun and hunting enthusiast in Western Maryland or raising kids in East Baltimore, no one wants dangerous people to have guns."
So identifying and punishing those who supply them should be a public priority.
"A lot of things about guns are controversial," Webster says, "but this is not one of them."
What's needed: greater enforcement, shifting resources away from the war on drugs for a deeper dive into the black market for firearms, and heavier penalties for selling guns to people who should not have even one.