Towards a Compromise on Illegal Guns in Baltimore

by: Nate Loewentheil Special to the AFRO
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Recently I was at a vigil in Cherry Hill for a young man named MJ. He was shot 15 times after leaving a pool party over the weekend. His girlfriend organized the vigil. For the first hour, she was calm and collected as she ran the service. Then her two-year old son – MJ’s son – started crying, and her grief burst forth like a river through a dam.

Between tears and cries and shouts of anger, she cursed the streets that had taken her son’s father and begged the crowd to put the guns down. At the end of the service, 150 people released balloons with MJ’s name into the darkening summer sky.

Nate Loewentheil (Courtesy Photo/LinkedIn)

To try to control the rapid growth in gun violence, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is pushing a one-year minimum sentence for carrying an illegal firearm in Baltimore. The rule has been met with fierce resistance from community members, activists and leaders who are wary of mandatory minimums. The debate is shadowed by the city’s history of zero tolerance policing and concerns about the reliability, trustworthiness and fairness of the police force.

Those concerns are understandable. Long, mandatory minimum sentences can have harmful consequences. Typically, these minimums have imposed 15, 20 or 25 year sentences, often for a wide range of drug and gun crimes. They have had a disparate impact on minority communities and had intergenerational consequences for too many families. Once imposed, these laws have proven very resistant to reform. Federal mandatory minimums have been particularly damaging.

But the Police Commissioner’s proposal is not in the same vein. It is a new city ordinance that can be easily overturned. And it is focused on a very narrow problem: people are too willing to carry a gun around town, and the more guns, the greater the probability of violence. That is what I heard at the vigil in Cherry Hill – more guns, more murders. Many gun offenders are let off without consequences. That means that people are right back on the streets, with guns, at a moment of flaring violence. MJ is one of 195 people murdered so far this year as of July 25. That’s 195 funerals, hundreds of aggrieved parents and loved ones, scores of children who will grow up without a father or mother. On a per-capita basis, Baltimore City is now the most dangerous city in America.

I believe firmly that Baltimore cannot afford a return to zero tolerance policing. The Police Department needs reform, beginning with a thorough implementation of the Department of Justice consent decree. But we need to find ways to break the cycle of violence right now. To carry a gun today is to test fate – like lighting a bonfire in a forest during a long, dry summer.

So here’s a compromise: Pass a law imposing a one-year minimum sentence for carrying an illegal gun; but create a “sunset” provision so that that the rule automatically comes up for review after two years or when the murder rate in the city falls below 200. That makes it clear that the goal here is not to put more people in jail in the long-term. It’s to tackle an immediate public health and safety crisis, like imposing mandatory vaccinations or quarantines during an epidemic.

Such a rule should not be a replacement for public investment in jobs, in education, in creating opportunities for young people. It doesn’t substitute for programs like Safe Streets – or, for that matter, for police training. But it does give our city another tool to fight against the possession of illegal guns in our city. And it sends a clear message to all who seek to cause harm in Baltimore: Put your guns down. We cannot live like this.

Nate Loewentheil grew up in Baltimore and spent the past four years in the Obama White House, including a year leading the President’s taskforce for Baltimore City.

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