This piece was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America.
Over Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore, eight people were shot and killed—a shocking amount of bloodshed even for a city that has eclipsed 300 homicides each year since 2015.
Baltimore City Police Department Commissioner Michael Harrison—the tenth to hold the position since 2000—called the toll “incomprehensible and unconscionable.” Many of the city’s mayoral candidates expressed similar sorrow and outrage, mourning the lives lost while promoting their plans for reducing crime.
“I’m angry because there’s like no sense of urgency with what we have going on,” former BPD spokesperson T.J. Smith told a local television station. “We have an epidemic going on.”
Sheila Dixon, seeking the office she held from 2007 to 2010, when she resigned over a corruption scandal, also voiced her dismay. As mayor, she targeted illegal firearms and has made that a core part of her pitch during the current race.
“We should not be talking about people losing lives this weekend during coronavirus when people are supposed to stay in,” she said. “I know we have a police shortage, but we also have other supplemental public safety who could help us in this effort.”
City Council President Brandon Scott released a statement through his campaign. One of the weekend’s homicides happened near his grandmother’s house. The victim’s blood spattered her truck.
“Frustrated does not come close to describing my feelings,” he wrote. “We can, must, and will do better. Targeting the right people and the flow of guns into our city is not hard.”
The three candidates, all Democrats, are among the top contenders to win Baltimore’s June 2 mayoral primary, which in a solidly Democratic city will effectively decide who becomes its next mayor. Each says not enough is being done to tackle crime.
But their specific proposals for reducing gun violence present a paradox.
In a city where nearly one in five people lives in poverty and whole blocks are vacant and crumbling, Scott, Dixon, and Smith link shootings to inequality, housing insecurity, untreated trauma, and other underlying factors that they pledge to address with public investments.
Each backs some programs, like the violence interruption program Safe Streets or the grassroots anti-violence movement Baltimore Ceasefire, that employ concepts from public health and steer at-risk people toward social services. Other parts of their platforms support reforms to the embattled Police Department, which has cut arrests from around 100,000 to 25,000 annually and has largely done away with drug roundups.
Yet, as other city governments around the country pour resources into community-led gun violence interventions, these leading candidates for Baltimore mayor are pledging to reduce shootings by empowering law enforcement to pursue tactics that have not been proven to save lives, but could drive up incarceration and perpetuate racial disparities.
“The second violence goes up, we have a knee-jerk reaction to go back to the solutions that have not worked in Baltimore or across the nation,” said Kristerfer Burnett, a Baltimore City Council member and chair of the Public Health Committee..
Along with the three candidates, other front-runners include Obama administration veteran Mary Miller and ex-Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah. However, it’s Smith, Dixon, and Scott—three Black political figures with prominent Baltimore profiles—who most illustrate how gun violence confounds other efforts toward racial justice and less aggressive policing.
Smith was a public face of the Baltimore Police Department following the Baltimore Uprising, when the Department of Justice investigated the department and found “a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.” He was also spokesperson when the corruption of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force spilled into view, revealing that the unit had stolen money from residents, dealt drugs, and wracked up thousands of dollars in fraudulent overtime. Smith wants to give the Police Department more tools to fight crime and advocates stiffer penalties for gun possession.
Dixon has waged a nostalgia campaign, popular with Baltimoreans who look back on her term as one in which the city was making significant progress in both bringing down the homicide rate and lowering arrests. Some of the changes Dixon made were forced by an ACLU lawsuit brought against the zero tolerance policies of her predecessor, Martin O’Malley, but one of the shifts was touted as innovative and restorative at the time: She redirected the focus of the police from seizing drugs to seizing guns. For a few years, it seemed to work. But then Dixon pleaded guilty to corruption charges and left office, and a centerpiece of her approach to illegal firearms, a registry of gun offenders, was criticized for violating civil rights. Now running for her old job, she defends the listing of illegal gun owners as key to a safer city.
Scott, by contrast, has roots in community-led gun violence prevention. Before ascending to president of the Council, he was a leader of the anti-violence group The 300 Men March in the early 2010s and later became a subject of the gun violence documentary Charm City. He opposes stiffening the criminal penalties for illegal gun possession, but his proposals would expand gun arrests in the hope of curbing firearm trafficking.
If any of the three prevail in the primary, it will affirm that their calls for cracking down on illegal guns (and by extension, the primarily young Black men who are considered Baltimore’s unlawful gun owners and carriers) have resonated with the city’s voters, who have overwhelmingly ranked crime as their top concern. Some of the same Black Baltimoreans pushing for systemic overhauls are impatient for more safety and say they can’t wait for longer-term solutions to all the shootings.
“It’s easier to run and win on reducing violence by policing,” said Andrea Benjamin, a University of Oklahoma professor who studies race and local politics. “If you talk about the drivers behind violence, there are no immediate political wins on that, because it takes a time investment to see results.”
When it comes to the debate over how to reduce gun violence in Baltimore, the city’s controversial gun offender registry may be the defining policy issue. Scott, Dixon, and Smith have all embraced the tracking program, which requires anyone arrested for illegal possession of a firearm to sign up for three years of routine check-ins and random visits from law enforcement while social workers provide employment assistance. Those who violate the registry’s terms—a missed appointment or a failure to update their current address—face up to a year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both.
During this year’s campaign, Dixon has taken credit for overseeing the creation of the registry in 2007 while she served as mayor. “I reduced crime in this city to the lowest that it was in 30 years,” she said during a candidate’s forum in January. “We not only tracked them and reported what they were doing… we brought services to them.”
As head of the City Council, Scott backed legislation, signed into law in January, to expand the gun registry by amending it to include those convicted of making straw purchases for people who could not legally obtain a weapon. Straw purchasing, he argues, has brought hundreds of weapons into Baltimore from outside its borders. In 2018, more than 1,500 seized by Baltimore Police came from places as far away as California, and as close as the surrounding Maryland counties and Virginia.
“When a gun lands in the hands of a young man in West Baltimore, you know he has never been to West Virginia or California or any of these places these guns are coming from,” Scott told The Trace.
He would have the Baltimore Police use the gun offender registry to piece together and take down gun trafficking networks. “When you arrest a drug dealer, they try to connect it to a bigger fish,” Scott said. “When you look at gun cases, that is not happening.”
There’s precedent for the approach Scott describes: It’s what led Dixon and then-police commissioner Frederick Bealefeld to create the now infamous Gun Trace Task Force, which investigated gun sellers and shooters the way other squads took down drug dealers. Over time, though, the GTTF abandoned methodical investigations in favor of sweeping corners, arresting anyone found with an illegal firearm.
In 2016, when a police sergeant named Wayne Jenkins took over the unit, he used the steady gun arrests for what one drug dealer working with him called, “a front for a criminal enterprise.” Jenkins and six other GTTF members were federally indicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges in a scandal that continues to bring down former police officers.
Scott argues that cracking down on illegal guns can work if investigators stay focused on going after traffickers, and says that he can impose accountability on the police department that Dixon, because of her corruption record, cannot provide. But even before the Gun Trace Task Force went rogue, the gun offender registry itself was drawing criticism. The names on the registry are posted publicly on a city website, and the people on the list are expected to provide any information that officers request during their check-ins, creating the potential for self-incrimination. Data shows the program disproportionately affects Black Baltimore residents, who represent 61 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 96 percent of the people on the registry, according to one analysis.
In 2011, a city judge called Baltimore’s gun offender registry “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.” The Maryland Court of Special Appeals later upheld it, pointing to its use in other cities.
Those other gun offender registries, however, have not yielded consistent reductions in gun violence. New York City recorded 100 fewer homicides after it implemented a registry in 2006, but those results were short-lived. Murders crept back toward pre-registry levels in 2010 and 2011 before the city entered its historic homicide decline in 2012, New York data shows. Washington, D.C., saw a steady decline in homicides when it adopted a gun registry in 2009, only to have homicides spike in 2015 and again in 2018 and 2019. Chicago’s gun registry did not prevent record spikes in violence. A report from DePaul University found the city’s list was undermined by errors and omissions, while scholars have flagged the potential chilling effect on employment—an ironic downside, considering how the defenders of Baltimore’s gun registry emphasize its job support component.
Racial disparities and concerns about the registry’s legality have not softened support for Dixon and Scott. What ultimately matters, they say, is purging illegal guns from Baltimore.
“If those individuals we are tracking… are predominantly African-American,” Dixon told The Trace, “we still have to get the guns off the street.”
In 2019, the Baltimore Police Department seized more than 1,900 firearms. That same year, the city experienced 348 homicides, a record high. Smith, who lost a younger brother to gun violence in 2017, compared the volume of guns collected by officers to the number of homicides and concluded that the city needs to be able to take aggressive action to deter residents from carrying guns unlawfully.
“Right now, I don’t believe [that] for those people who want to illegally possess a gun there is any certainty of consequences,” Smith said.
His plan calls for state legislation to increase the penalty for first-time gun possession from a misdemeanor to a felony. Charging first-time illegal gun possession as a misdemeanor means an offender arrested can be released the same day, while a felony arrest comes with up to a year in state prison. The logic behind Smith’s prescription is simple enough: To reduce an unwanted behavior, increase the punishment for getting caught.
A federal initiative predicated on that formula did not deliver on its promise. Project Exile, launched in 1997 in Richmond, Virginia, brought the weight of federal prosecution against defendants who used guns while committing other crimes, sending offenders to serve long sentences away from their families in federal prisons. A successor to Exile, known as Project Safe Neighborhoods, has produced some splashy headlines in Baltimore, including the arrest of Terrell Elliott, who was busted for illegally selling guns that he marketed on Instagram. But shootings have remained stubbornly high, just as they have in other cities that have heavily leaned on federal prosecutions of gun crimes.
The mayor’s race is playing out against the backdrop of two newer federally led crackdowns on illegal guns. Baltimore was one of seven cities selected for the Justice Department’s “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” a pilot program that will put more government agents on the streets, recruit more officers, and invite city cops to participate in federal task forces to stop the flow of firearms. The second initiative, Project Guardian, targets gun offenders and straw purchasers and has raised federal prosecutions up to 40 percent in other parts of the country. While it’s too early to know their effectiveness, the efforts have the support of Smith, Dixon, and Scott.
Of the three, only Scott opposes another experiment born out of the desperate search for answers to Baltimore’s gun violence problem. In April, Baltimore approved a six-month plan to test aerial surveillance as a tool for investigating homicides and nonfatal shootings, which the city has struggled to solve. When the Police Department tried similar flyovers in 2016, it did not notify the public or the Mayor’s Office, and the American Civil Liberties Union unsuccessfully sued the city to stop the new flights. (The aerial surveillance pilot program is being underwritten by Arnold Ventures, which has made a grant to The Trace, Baltimore Beat‘s parter on this story. Here is The Trace’s policy on editorial independence.)
“Unproven experiments and gimmicks designed to simply appease communities in the short term will not provide our residents with the trauma-responsive care that they need and deserve,” Scott said shortly after the “spy plane,” as it’s known locally, got the go-ahead earlier this spring.
Smith was with the Baltimore Police when journalists exposed the secret surveillance flights four years ago, and he defended them then. As a candidate, he has pressed the idea that the flyovers deserve a second, more transparent chance.
“The city is in its worst crime situation than it’s ever been in,” Smith said during an interview with The Trace. “The only way to see whether it works is to try.”
In Baltimore, that’s a mentality shared by many voters, for whom a feeling of lawlessness can be inescapable. People just want the killing to stop. And to varying degrees, the city’s would-be mayors are all willing to risk increases in arrests, incarceration, and related racial disparities to attempt to make that happen.
But gun violence eludes magical solutions. Policies that go after illegal firearms may successfully target the fraction of violent people that the majority of assaults and murder, as well as the traffickers who arm them. The risk of overreach is also significant, though. Research suggests, for instance, that many young Black men who carry illegal firearms don’t do so to commit crimes, but because they don’t trust their government to keep them safe.
Asked to assess the candidates’ plans, a veteran scholar of criminology and racial inequity responded with a warning.
“If the city thinks it can solve the problem by arresting its way out of it, that’s simply not the case,” Robert Crutchfield, a fellow with the American Society of Criminology, told The Trace. “The underlying issues driving violence remain. The lack of employment, education and housing issues will remain.”