Pr. George’s council passes gun registry bill

By the end of July, those convicted of gun crimes in Prince George’s County will have to register with police, check-in regularly and agree to let officers randomly visit their homes.

After a brief public hearing Tuesday, Prince George’s County Council members unanimously passed a bill authorizing police to operate a so-called gun-offender registry — an effort, council members and law enforcement officials said, to reduce gun crime that has plagued the area. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said afterward that he plans to sign the bill as soon as possible, meaning the registry will take effect in late July, 45 days from the time it was passed.

“At the end of the day, what this county is going to see is a reduction in crime,” said Barry L. Stanton, Baker’s public safety director.

The law puts Prince George’s among 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 — have created such registries, and officials have seen some evidence they reduce recidivism, authorities said.

Public safety officials said they are still working out the precise details of how the registry will be implemented in Prince George’s — details they plan to submit to the council next week to consider as a formal resolution. But much is already clear.

The bill will require anyone convicted of a gun crime in Prince George’s 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 will be required to meet with police to verify the information they provided, and officers can periodically visit — though not search — offenders’ homes to make sure the information is accurate and up to date.

Those convicted of most gun crimes will stay on the registry for three years; those convicted of using a handgun in another crime will remain on the registry for five years. Anyone who either fails to register or moves without notifying police will face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Offenders have 48 hours from the time they are sentenced — or released, should their sentence involve prison time — to register.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Prince George’s top public safety officials pointed to 180 non-fatal shootings last year and 63 so far this year as evidence for the registry’s necessity, while local NAACP officials and a few residents questioned the bill’s constitutionality and fairness.

Bob Ross, head of the Prince George’s NAACP, said the registry “sort-of violates one’s constitutional rights” and urged council members to delay passing the legislation because a state circuit court judge in Baltimore last year had deemed a similar program there unconstitutional. In that case, though, the judge said the police department was not specific in explaining how the program would be implemented, not that the registry was unconstitutional per se.

Darrell Miller, the legislative co-chairman for the Prince George’s NAACP, said after the hearing that though council members had good intentions, the registry might discourage gun criminals from seeking to reform their lives by hampering their ability to seek jobs.

Council member Karen R. Toles, (D-Suitland), who sponsored the legislation, disputed that: “It would discourage them from using a gun to commit a crime. That’s what it would do.”

Police have said they would initially assign a sergeant and four or five detectives to handle the registry, pulling them from other jobs. They have said that the database could be created by those who run the department’s sex-offender registry and do other IT work, and there would be no additional administrative costs.

Council members also debated — without reaching any conclusions — about whether the registry should be public record. Toles said that though the registry is designed as a database for police eyes only, county lawyers would have to investigate whether it could be requested under the Maryland Public Information Act. Some council members indicated they would like to see the registry as a public database, much like the sex-offender registry, while others said they preferred it remain accessible only to those in law enforcement so that those legitimately trying to reform their lives could still seek work.

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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