Plagued by gun crime, Pr. George’s considers making offenders register

In Prince George’s County — where hundreds of people were shot last year and 64 of them died — people convicted of gun crimes may soon be required to register, regularly check in with police and submit to home visits from officers.

All nine members of the County Council have signed on as co-sponsors of a bill requiring the registry, and a vote is expected in early June. The effort to make the county’s streets safer has been pushed by the police, who say that for too many people, carrying a firearm illegally is a rite of passage and getting caught is a minor inconvenience.

“These guys are not afraid to ride around with guns,” said Prince George’s Deputy Police Chief Craig Howard, who has lobbied for the legislation. “They’re not afraid to get locked up. So hopefully, this will give us a little teeth.”

If the measure passes, as expected, the county would join a growing number of local governments regionally and across the nation that allow police to monitor gun offenders.

In recent years, Baltimore and the District — following the lead of New York City — have created such registries and assigned detectives to visit the homes of convicted gun offenders, authorities said. Connecticut legislators discussed enacting such a registry statewide last year, but no bill came to a vote, and the issue did not come up during this year’s legislative session, authorities said.

“I think it’s gaining some popularity and people [are] considering this as a useful strategy,” said Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and co-director of the school’s Center for Gun Policy and Research. “In many, if not most, U.S. cities, gun violence is one of the top public safety concerns, and one thing that more agencies want to do is kind of keep tabs on where these offenders are.”

The goal, police say, is to give gun offenders — who, research shows, are likely to commit more serious crimes — an extra incentive to stay out of trouble. The registry is not public, but it “puts them on notice that the police department is keeping an eye on them,” Howard said.

Although the registries are in their infancy, there is some evidence they are effective.

In the District, which launched its registry in December 2009, only nine of the 1,148 offenders have been arrested again on gun counts, although others may have been accused of different of­fenses, said D.C. police Capt. Brian Harris. In Baltimore, which began its registry in 2008, fewer than 5 percent of the 1,669 gun offenders whose names have been on the registry have been arrested on new gun charges, and just 25 percent have been arrested on any new charges, said Sheryl Goldstein, the director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice.

According to a recent Pew Center on the States study on recidivism — which looked in part at inmates released in 2004 — 43.3 percent were jailed again in three years.

The gun-offender registry has “definitely had an impact,” Goldstein said. “The recidivism rate of people who are registered as gun offenders is lower than the national average significantly, and the rate of re-offending with guns is very, very small.”

Opponents, though, question whether the registries are worth the cost.

Andrew Arulanandam, the National Rifle Association’s director of public affairs, said his group advocates vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws rather than the creation of new databases. Running a gun-offender registry, he said, requires taxpayers to foot the bill for computer equipment and IT professionals, and it could take officers off the streets and place them in administrative jobs.

“Schemes like this are basically a burden on taxpayers, and in the end they achieve nothing,” Arula­nandam said.

In Baltimore, there are questions about the legality of the program. Last year, a Circuit Court judge ruled the city’s registry unconstitutional, saying the police department was not specific enough in explaining how it would be implemented. Goldstein said city officials are appealing that ruling — which is not binding on other judges — and have filed paperwork with the city’s Department of Legislative Reference that they say should allay any concerns about the law’s specificity.

Officials in Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties said they do not have gun-offender registries.

Howard said Prince George’s officials were moved to consider a registry after an unusually high 16 homicides in January 2011, the majority of them involving guns. Since 2007, he said, a gun has been used in 429 of the 573 criminal homicides the department has investigated.

Howard said he approached Prince George’s County Council member Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland), who sponsored the bill. Toles said she expects the legislation to pass immediately after the June 5 hearing.

“I just think it would deter a lot of activity that would happen,” Toles said. “Even if it’s Big Brother-ish, it is what it is. The whole idea is to keep our community safe.”

Anyone convicted of a gun crime in Prince George’s would be required to provide police with his or her name, any aliases, and a host of contact information, including a home address, telephone number and e-mail address. Every six months, those on the registry would be required to meet with police to verify the information they provided. Police officers would periodically visit — though not search — offenders’ homes to make sure the information is accurate and up to date, Howard said.

Those convicted of most gun crimes would stay on the registry for three years; those convicted of using a handgun in another crime would stay on the registry for five years. Anyone who either failed to register or moved without notifying the police would face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, and police would work to charge them with violating probation on their original crime, authorities said.

The registry would not restrict where offenders could live, authorities said. Police said they would notify other jurisdictions about offenders who move out of Prince George’s, but they acknowledged that their ability to monitor such people might be limited.

Howard said police would initially assign a sergeant and four or five detectives to handle the gun registry, pulling them from other jobs in the department. He said the creation of the computer database could be handled by those who run the department’s sex-offender registry and do other IT work.

Howard and Toles declined to provide an administrative cost for the program, but they said it would be negligible.

Baltimore has five people assigned to its gun-offender registry unit — a sergeant, two officers and two retired officers handling administrative duties — and the District has three, authorities said. In both cities, other officers — on patrol or in specialized units — visit offenders’ homes as part of their regular jobs, authorities said.

Howard said Prince George’s would eventually create a similar system, distributing the gun offenders’ information within the department so that patrol officers and detectives would be familiar with those on the registry.

“From an investigative standpoint . . . they will be some of the first people we will go look at,” Howard said, adding that officers would be careful to respect the offenders’ constitutional rights.

Howard said police would consider the program a success if few people on the list were caught again with guns and the number of gun crimes dropped.

Optimally, he said, the registry would change the mind-set among some that gun crime is acceptable. “That’s the mentality,” Howard said. “It’s a lot of handgun violence out there. . . . If we could drive those numbers down, that would be a win-win for the community.”

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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