Pittman on Guns: Local Governments ‘Really Can Address This Issue’

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), with Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) behind him, says local leaders were looking for more collaboration from the state during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

After a gunman killed five Capital-Gazette employees in the paper’s Annapolis newsroom nearly two years ago, those staffers who survived the shooting called on local government candidates to take a stance against gun violence.

“We promise you this,” survivors wrote just weeks after their colleagues were killed. “We will ask every elected official, every candidate for public office and every person who wants to lead Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland and this nation a simple question: How do we make Annapolis the last mass shooting in America?”

Writing a response in August 2018, Steuart Pittman, a novice candidate at the time who was the Democratic nominee for Anne Arundel County executive, pledged to create a task force to look at how to curb gun violence. He noted that no commission in the county was addressing gun violence at the time.

Pittman created the task force by executive order after he was elected, and the group released its final report last Friday. The report includes a slew of recommendations for curbing gun violence in the county, including statewide gun policy measures and local reforms.

The task force found that the number of gun deaths to homicide rather than suicide has been steadily increasing in Anne Arundel County. According to the report the proportion of homicides and suicide gun deaths were almost the same in 2018. There were a total of 223 deaths from firearms in the county between 2014 and 2018, according to the report. Suicides accounted for the highest proportion of deaths during that period, averaging 63%.

Many of the task force’s recommendations are aimed at county-level reform. Some of those include declaring gun violence a health emergency, investing in local communities most impacted by gun violence and establishing a repository to collect data on gun violence.

Other county-level recommendations involve an indirect approach to lessening gun violence, like “implementing a later school start time in order to increase sleep for adolescents as prevention for gun violence risk factors.”

The task force’s recommendations also include state and “society” reforms, like stepping up background checks on gun purchases and implementing so-called “Red Flag” laws. Maryland already has one such law.

But local governments are limited in what they can do to address gun violence. State government in Maryland “preempts the right of a county, municipal corporation, or special taxing district to regulate the purchase, sale, taxation, transfer, manufacture, repair, ownership, possession, and transportation” of handguns, rifles and shotguns, according to state law. State law also preempts counties from regulating ammunition and components of those guns.

In an interview, Pittman noted that preemptions limit what local governments can do to curb gun violence. He said some of the recommendations are aimed at showing local governments how they can address gun violence despite state preemptions.

“We’re going to show it to local governments that we really can address this issue,” Pittman said. “We don’t have to just wait for Congress to pass a bill or law.”

Pittman and Anne Arundel County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman have repeatedly said gun violence in the county is a health issue rather than a Constitutional one. Kalyanaraman told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year that viewing gun violence as a public health threat “pulls us away from the guns versus no-guns question, which is contentious and is wrapped up in Second Amendment issues.”

“It’s not a Second Amendment issue at all, in my view,” Pittman said. “It is completely a health issue. “

He hopes that local governments, by passing what reforms they can on county or community levels, can influence the state and even national conversations around gun violence.

Pittman noted that some gun rights advocates had criticized the task force at its meetings. He previously defended his decision to not include gun rights experts on the task force, citing gun violence as a health issue rather than a Second Amendment issue, according to the Capital-Gazette.  A group of gun owners previously said the task force was “flawed from the start” for not allowing gun rights advocates a seat at the table.

“The task force itself was charged by those people with being biased,” Pittman said. “And I readily acknowledged that there was a bias against gun violence on the task force. That was the purpose of the task force.”

Pittman emphasized that the report’s recommendations would be implemented soon. He said a new position would be funded at the county’s department of health as of July 1 to establish a Gun Violence Intervention Team, which will implement recommendations.

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