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Baltimore's gun violence paradox

More people are carrying weapons since Freddie Gray's death a year ago.

Baltimore City Police Commission Kevin Davis recently noted an unsettling fact. His department's arrests for gun crimes and officers' seizures of illegal weapons have increased significantly over this time a year ago, but the expected reduction in homicides and nonfatal shootings hasn't materialized. Gun crimes are at about the same levels they were in 2015, the deadliest year per capita in the city's history. For years police operated on the assumption that reducing gun violence meant getting the relatively small number of people who commit most of the serious crime off the streets and confiscating their illegal guns. But that model isn't working this year, and no one seems to quite know why.

Experts say one reason gun crimes remain high even though gun arrests have increased might be that more people are carrying guns, perhaps in response to the spike in gun violence that began in 2015 following the unrest prompted by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Mr. Davis acknowledged that possibility when he suggested that the violent aftermath of that episode may have left more people feeling compelled to carry a weapon to protect themselves, and it's long been known that carrying a weapon is a strong predictor that it eventually will be used to commit a crime.

Another possible explanation is that even the increased pace of illegal gun seizures is insignificant compared to the scope of the problem. There are more than 300 million guns in circulation in the U.S., and though there’s no way to know how many are circulating on the streets of Baltimore, it’s quite possible that 845 gun arrests so far this year, while a 40 percent increase, is still failing to make a dent in the overall availability of illegal weapons. And of course, making more arrests doesn’t necessarily mean the bad guys stay off the streets; effective partnership between police and prosecutors remains necessary to build good cases and secure convictions.

We can’t measure what would have happened with shootings and homicides if police had done nothing new in response to the upsurge in gun violence — no “War Room,” no trigger-pullers list, no increased emphasis on seizing illegal weapons. Perhaps things could be much worse. The only thing we know for sure is that when those measures were applied in the latter part of 2015 the rate at which shootings and homicides were increasing slowed. Would that have happened “naturally” with no shift in approaches?

Johns Hopkins gun violence researcher Daniel Webster thinks that's unlikely given the degree to which the surge in violence was staunched, even though it wasn't eliminated completely. He also points out that there were other factors working to limit the infectious violence the city was experiencing, including public health programs like the Safe Streets violence reduction initiative and closer collaboration between police and prosecutors to increase the swiftness and certainty of consequences for illegal gun possession. Maryland's gun laws make that crime a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Strengthening the penalties for illegal gun possession, as Commissioner Davis unsuccessfully urged the General Assembly to do this year, could go a long way toward getting Baltimore's trigger-pullers off the streets and keeping them off.

Meanwhile, officials must recognize that law-enforcement alone can't solve Baltimore's gun violence problem, which is rooted in decades of unemployment, poverty and lack of opportunity in the city's most disadvantaged communities. It's notable that when Mr. Davis was asked during a recent Sun editorial board meeting what one thing he would do if he could to reduce crime, he didn't talk about gun control, more cops on the streets or better technology. His answer was drug treatment on demand.

That makes sense, given the degree to which the illegal drug economy drives all manner of lawbreaking, from petty theft to murder. But it's an incomplete answer. City leaders must consider not just what it would take to treat addicts but also the social and economic conditions that led to the problem in the first place. We need not just treatment on demand but also make investments over a sustained period to provide better schools, housing and job training. Building stronger communities is a lot harder to do than simply sending in the police to tamp down the disorder, but it's the only way to bring lasting change for the people most at risk of becoming victims of Baltimore's gun violence epidemic.

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