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A police officer on patrol in Baltimore. Last year, the city recorded 343 homicides. [AP/Rob Carr]

Gun Trafficking

Maryland Will Invest in Gun Trafficking Crackdown

“Instead of just trying to catch the one guy on the corner with a gun, we’re going to figure out where it came from,” said Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County.

Maryland officials are ramping up an aggressive campaign against the gun traffickers who law enforcement officials say are arming criminals and fueling violence in cities across the state.

On April 24, Republican Governor Larry Hogan approved dual measures designed to penetrate the underground networks for illegal weapons. One of the provisions grants investigators broader wiretapping authority so they can seek court orders to eavesdrop on telephone conversations involving suspected gun traffickers. The other sets aside nearly $2 million over four fiscal years to create a statewide task force whose chief aims would include investigating straw purchasing and the movement of illegal firearms.

The passage of the provisions in the waning days of Maryland’s legislative session came even though House lawmakers earlier rejected them as part of a more sweeping piece of anti-crime legislation, reflecting a sustained sense of urgency to tame the violence that pushed homicides in Baltimore up to 343, a record for per capita killings. It also signals a growing desire among law enforcement to go after high-level traffickers. Prosecutors told The Trace that they hope to use their new wiretapping  powers to build cases against black-market suppliers and curtail the influx of illegal guns from other states.

“Instead of just trying to catch the one guy on the corner with a gun, we’re going to figure out where it came from, how it got here, and who in the state was responsible for bringing it in,” said Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County who championed the wiretapping provision as it moved through the state General Assembly.

The funding for the anti-trafficking task force will go to the Department of State Police in four equal chunks beginning in July 2019. Shellenberger praised its creation, saying the task force’s ability to work across law enforcement department boundaries will let officers target the more expansive networks shepherding guns across Maryland.

“People who are moving guns are not limiting themselves to one jurisdiction,” Shellenberger said. “A statewide unit can look at the bigger picture to see where this is all going and coming from.”

Baltimore is nestled along the East Coast web of interstates and highways known as the Iron Pipeline, which gunrunners use to ferry weapons from Southern states to the Northeast, where tougher laws have made firearms harder to obtain and thus increased the price that one can fetch on the black market. Of the more than 26,000 crime guns that were recovered in Maryland and subsequently traced between 2012 and 2016, nearly half — 45 percent — originated in another state, most notably Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Wiretaps have helped authorities in other Iron Pipeline states crack down. Last year, New York City police used evidence collected from tapped phone calls to levy charges against two dozen suspected traffickers and seize more than 200 weapons in what amounted to the largest gun bust in Brooklyn’s history, according to the New York Post. The traffickers were suspected of ferrying the guns up from Virginia, and one of them was recorded on a wiretap boasting about how lax laws in the Old Dominion state made it easier to amass their stockpile.

Maryland’s rules allow judges to grant wiretaps against suspects implicated in one of more than 20 different crimes, ranging from insurance fraud to more serious offenses like murder. But investigators have to show that most other means of building a case against a suspect have been tried and failed.

The legislation approved adds firearm offenses to the list of crimes eligible for a wiretap.

Among privacy and police-accountability advocates, the potential for expanded surveillance powers has generated alarm. The new law comes at a time when Baltimore is reeling from allegations of widespread police misconduct. The city’s now-defunct Gun Trace Task Force has been implicated in a scheme to rob residents and resell seized guns and drugs on the street, and several of its members have already been convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

“Police misconduct is a perennial issue here in Maryland,” said Toni Holness, the public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “We already know that law enforcement is misusing the tools in their toolbox, so it’s absurd to be giving them more.”

Law enforcement officials counter that the burden of proof required to obtain a wiretap prevents abuse and ensures that the technology is used as a method of last resort.

Maryland is not the only state that has sought to expand wiretapping to gun crimes. Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts pushed a bill last year that would have added gun trafficking to the list of offenses that constitute organized crime, thus allowing law enforcement to obtain a wiretap. But the bill failed to advance, prompting an outcry from police and prosecutors.

The two provisions in Maryland were initially part of a much more sweeping and contentious piece of anti-crime legislation backed by Governor Hogan that included longer prison sentences for repeat violent offenders. The measure, introduced by Democratic State Senator Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, cleared the state Senate but died in the House, with critics saying the proposed policies would have amounted to a step back in the state’s efforts to reduce mass incarceration.

The two gun trafficking provisions were among the elements of the more comprehensive legislation that lawmakers revived as amendments to other bills already introduced in the Legislature.

Rich Gibson Jr., a Baltimore prosecutor who is running to become the state’s attorney in neighboring Howard County, said the exclusion of gunrunning cases from Maryland’s wiretapping law came to his attention as early as 2013, when he worked on a case in which authorities arrested a man in the city with a van full of illegal ammunition and handguns, some of which had been outfitted with laser sights. Authorities wanted to know how the suspect obtained the weapons and who else may have been involved in trafficking them into Baltimore. But with investigators unable to tap the suspect’s phone, any hope of putting the pieces together fizzled.

“We got those specific guns off the street, but we didn’t know how deep that well went — and we never will,” Gibson said. “That’s frustrating.”