Montgomery County police, frustrated by the growing number of residential burglaries an average of 30 per day, up 38 percent over last year -- are supporting county legislation to regulate business that buy silver, gold and other precious metals.
The ordinance would require such businesses operating in Montgomery to be licensed by the county Office of Consumer Affairs.
It would forbid dealers to sell, melt down or "obliterate identification marks" on any item they buy for at least 15 days. Dealers would have to keep records of each purchase, including the name, date of birth, address and physical description of the seller.
The information would be forwarded to police on a weekly basis. The law also would prohibit purchase of such items from anyone under 18 unless the seller were accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Instead of cash, dealers would be required to make purchases by check.
At a public hearing on the proposed legislation last week, police detective James King told members of the Montgomery County Council that crime in the county is on the upswing, due primarily to the "proliferation of buyers of precious metals."
King said thieves can take stolen jewlry, gold and silver coins and household items to any second-hand dealer in the county and trade the goods for instant cash.
"Before a family has made a list of what was taken from their home, much of it has been crushed, melted and is on its way to a refinery," King said.
While television sets, stereos and radios used to be the burglar's stock in trade, precious metals and jewelry accounted for 54 percent of what was stolen from homes last year, King said.
Juvenile crime has been "skyrocketing" along with the price of precious metals, King said.
"Where do two 15-year-olds obtain a knapsack full of silver?" King asked the council, describing an incident in which police learned of Gaithersburg dealer who paid two youths $10 for items worth several thousand dollars.
The District, Alexandria, Fairfax City and Prince George's County already have laws similar to the one proposed for Montgomery County.
"Because we lack any regulations or controls," King continued, "there is a pattern emerging of burglars coming from other areas to Montgomery County, selling their wares."
King said while many of the metals dealers in the county are legitimate, a law is needed to discourage the "fly-by-night" tradespeople, who operate out of vans, and the "weekenders" -- out-of-town dealers who set up shop in hotel rooms and often leave town with stolen merchandise they have bought from thieves.
"We're not trying to put legitimate people out of business," King insisted.
"The [proposed] law will not solve all our problems, but it will help to stop juvenile involvement, help merchants resist a bargain and make recovery [of stolen property] a probability, not an impossibility."
While many in the council chamber spoke in favor of the bill -- including Republican state De. Connie Morella of Bethesda, who will introduce similar legislation in Annapolis, and Takoma Park Mayor Sam Abbott -- some opposed the measure as a "slap in the face" to legitimate dealers.
Robert Lucas Jr., executive director of the Precious Metal Dealers Association, which represents dealers throughout Maryland said the council is trying to "usurp the freedom of fair trade without restraint.
"The whole thing of merchandise and the administration by law enforcement agencies who are monitoring, executing and, more often than not, attempting to enforce licensing responsibilities brings us to one conclusion: our constitutional and civil rights are in jeopardy."
Glenn Cooper, a Bethesda attorney representing three long-established area coin dealers, said the proposed law would scrifice such legitimate businesses in order to catch intinerants.
Complying with the law, Cooper said, would "make running a business so expensive it would be prohibitive." Cooper said thefts of coins are not on the increase, as with other gold and silver items.
"Those who will bear the cost of the bill will be those selling [goods]."
Also opposing the legislation was Robert Benedict of Potomac, who said requiring sellers to give their names and addresses would violate rights of privacy. He said such records could easily fall into the hands of thieves and help them locate their next victims.
Council president Scott Fosler said the council probably will vote on the legislation Monday.