DRAWERS FULL of diamonds. Brown bags filled with gold. Silver and gold goblets, earrings and chains. With that pirate's trove of plunder before them, local police and FBI officials said last week they had arrested two major dealers, or fences, in stolen gold, silver and gems. The police said they confiscated more than $2 million in stolen goods from the fences. As a result of identifying the dealers in stolen goods, police said they have rounded up 70 possible burglars and solved more than 200 burglaries in the Washington area. If the police have a case that holds up in court, they have done a major service to this city and its suburbs. Since gold and silver prices skyrocketed early last year, there has been a thriving market for goods made of the precious metals; an open market that asked no questions about where the goods came from or who was offering them for sale.
That atmosphere led to a rash of burglaries, not to mention incidents in which people were stripped of gold and silver jewerly in the streets by brash thieves who would yank goods from necks, arms and ears. The key to stopping the crimes was to identify the people who were buying the stolen goods from small-time thieves and hustlers. Those people were supporting if not encouraging the front-line criminals. The police and FBI say they have now found two of those prime buyers after months of work.
As the police do their job to end the incentive for the gold and silver thefts, local lawmakers must do their part. In Virginia, state senator Wiley Mitchell of Alexandria ushered legislation through the state legislature this year requires all persons dealing in silver and gold to have licenses; to post bond before opening for business in the state; to get the names, addresses and Social Security numbers of every person who sells them precious metals; and to refrain from melting the metals or changing their design in any way -- as well as from selling them -- for 10 days. The Virginia law also requires that dealers notify police the day that an item is brought to them for sale. The bill, already signed by Gov. Dalton, takes effect July 1. It approaches a model of control.
In Maryland a similar bill has been passed, but the governor has yet to sign it. Under the Maryland law the precious metals must be kept by the buyer for 15 days. In the District, city council member David Clarke has introduced a bill to require that traders in gold and silver keep the item after purchase for 30 days, a 15-day increase over the city's current waiting period. The bill is still awaiting council hearings.
To make the best of the difficult and apparently successful police work being done in identifying men who may be a major buyers of stolen goods, local officials must move quickly to get the strongest possible laws on the books regulating secondhand deals in precious metals. Gov. Hughes should sign the Maryland bill, and District Lawmakers should take action on Mr. Clarke's bill. By going after the buyers and dealers who put the profit in thievery, police and legislators together will take the incentive out of the jewelry-snatching and burglaries that have come to plague the area.