The Daily Record: Pass a tougher illegal handgun law in city

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on July 20, 2017.

There’s been a flurry of recent activity from Baltimore’s elected officials and citizens launching initiatives aimed at helping to stem the shootings and killings that have literally spiraled out of control.

Not all of these efforts will be adopted, but they are an indication that not only has the frustration level peaked but that solutions to address this daunting issue are finally percolating.

First and foremost, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was joined by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and a number of elected city and state officials, and representatives of community and business leadership, to announce the introduction of legislation in the Baltimore City Council to strengthen penalties for illegal handgun possession.

That proposal was followed by a resolution introduced at a city council meeting calling on state elected officials to enact a tougher handgun law for Baltimore. Then one of Baltimore City’s legislative district teams, District 46, issued a broad policy plan, including steps to address violent crime.

Meanwhile, a grassroots campaign that has sprung up in the city, is calling for a 72-hour “truce,” Aug. 4 to Aug. 6, to help stop the shootings and homicides that are damaging lives and the city’s reputation.

Awakening to action

Some cynics may knock these efforts as pointless posturing or grasping at straws when it comes to violent crime.

But viewed collectively they represent an awakening to action and may prove to be a turning point for Baltimore as it takes stock of the 189 murdered between Jan. 1, 2017 and July 19, 2017 – a pace that, if continued, regrettably will break last year’s city homicide record. Sadly, the laser-focused attention on the homicide rate causes us to miss another startling statistic: 85 percent of those murdered so far this year are African-American men.

Fortunately, instead of more complaining, throwing our hands up in the air, and shaking our heads about the violence, solutions are coming to the fore.

Some of these efforts merit broad support — and hopefully will spur even more ideas and solutions that lead to significant reductions in crime.

The handgun legislation announced last week is worth supporting and pursuing. The city council should pass this bill quickly to give police and prosecutors another approach to get illegal guns and the people who carry them with mal intent off the streets.

The mayor, council president, police commissioner and other supporters of the bill aren’t kidding themselves. They acknowledge that this legislation alone is not a panacea to the violence.

But it will be a valuable new tool to help law enforcement address gun-related crime in Baltimore.

Of the 189 homicides referenced earlier, 167 involved shooting, or 88 percent.

Since not all of the homicides have been solved or gone to trial, we don’t know how many illegal handguns were used in these killings. But one can assume with some assurance that it’s an overwhelming majority.

The proposed legislation sends a clear message that possession of illegal handguns will not be tolerated in Baltimore.

The proposed legislation would require a mandatory one-year minimum sentence for illegal gun possession within 100 yards of a school, park, church, public building or other place of public assembly.  The bill also prohibits any chance of parole, probation or the suspension of all or part of the sentence.

The bill’s mandatory sentencing with no portion of the sentence eligible to be suspended is important when considered in light of a troubling fact that Davis noted last week:  More than 60 percent of individuals who have been convicted of gun offenses in the city since the start of 2016 have had more than half of their sentences suspended.

Police and city officials would have preferred an even tougher bill. But they are limited in what they can enact as state law controls most of the crime and punishment subject matter arena. Davis has lobbied for tougher handgun laws at the state level, but to no avail.

The proposed bill before the city council is a good step and signals that elected officials and the police are working together to get concrete solutions to the table. City residents, employers, employees, business leaders and the families of those murdered are frustrated and alarmed by the continued gun violence and rightly want action – not more talk.

Critics are off-base

Some critics already have weighed in, arguing there is no evidence that mandatory sentences work and that passage of the bill will lead to mass incarcerations, predominantly of African American men.

Davis has been very clear that police don’t want the law enacted as a justification to arrest more people. Police need another tool — with some teeth — to get illegal handguns off the streets.

Passage of the proposed bill would help build the local momentum that is growing on this issue and keep the ideas and solutions flowing.

It would also empower state legislators who represent Baltimore to make a strong case in Annapolis for even tougher handgun sanctions.

Opponents of the legislation argue that long-term solutions to address poverty, education and inequities in the city are the answer. Addressing underlying causes that lead to violence is essential and solutions are absolutely needed. Interested parties need to join together to find agreement and to develop solutions to those underlying challenges. That is a long-term strategy.

But immediate action to deter the carrying of illegal guns is needed.

It’s not likely that state leaders will be receptive to changes in state criminal laws if they don’t first see the city taking all the necessary steps to help itself.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. 

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