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The Nose

Rat-a-Tat-Tat

Posted 5/16/2007

One night in late April, while the Nose is lying in bed reading Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days, a gun battle erupts in our neighborhood. The guns keep firing, sometimes nearer, sometimes farther away. We close our eyes and pretend we're living in a small prairie town on the first day of duck-hunting season, or in a Bugs Bunny cartoon with Elmer Fudd, out to shoot a rabbit. But we aren't. We're in West Baltimore, and such sounds are just so much background noise. The blam-blams go on sporadically for about 20 minutes, and then the sirens start up and the police helicopter arrives, buzzing overhead. Despite the ruckus, Keillor's words are like a lullaby, putting us to sleep.

A few days later, on May 2, Mayor Sheila Dixon unveils her new "strategy to deal with illegal guns." Part of the plan is to track firearms, though a much-ballyhooed state law, the Responsible Gun Safety Act of 2000, is not mentioned in Dixon's announcement. That law already requires that all guns seized in the state be analyzed to see if they've been used in prior crimes. Dixon's PowerPoint presentation about her gun plan states that the city will "trace guns back to the original purchaser" and will "reduce backlog of firearms analysis and data entry." Sounds like a good plan. Better late than never, given the requirements of the seven-year-old gun-safety law.

Then the Nose gets hold of a Baltimore Police Department (BPD) e-mail that throws the whole idea into decidedly murky waters. "Due to the lack of resources, the firearms lab will prioritize case assignments," wrote BPD's laboratory division director Edgar Koch on April 26. Gun cases involving "turn-ins, found property, suicide or items of no evidentiary value will no longer be examined unless a situation dictates otherwise," he wrote. "Evidence involved in cases that have been adjudicated before examination will also not be analyzed."

Turns out, Koch's policy revision didn't get very far. "We are in the process of revising that new policy that director Koch announced," BPD spokesman Matt Jablow said on May 9 when asked about the e-mail. "I believe, given the fact that we're down a couple people there [at the firearms lab], he wanted to prioritize. But we want to make it clear that our policy is, for every gun we seize, to do an inventory search and that it be fired for ballistics." The bottom line, Jablow contends, is that every handgun and assault weapon police collect in Baltimore City will be tested eventually, before it is destroyed. Koch's e-mail to the contrary was a policy misfire, he says.

Still, doubts remain over how the every-gun-tested policy will be implemented in real life. In answering the Nose's inquiry about the firearms lab's staffing shortage, Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office spokeswoman Margaret Burns picks her words carefully, and points out that at her gun-policy press conference Dixon displayed 881 illegal guns seized by BPD between Jan. 1 and April 15. "It is unclear how this policy will affect law enforcement's ability to trace over 250 guns seized a month in Baltimore City," Burns concludes.

In the meantime, the Nose will continue to read ourselves to sleep at night, pretending that we're in greener pastures, and that all those guns blazing in the night eventually, inexorably, will be seized, tested, and destroyed, to be fired no more, and that Dixon's new anti-gun plan will put all those with itchy trigger fingers away, so we can sleep at night. And then, when we wake up, we'll tiptoe through the shell casings.

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