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Justice

Advocates Call for Ghost Gun Ban as Senators Debate Right Approach to Rising Crime Rates

Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) have the support of House Judiciary Chair Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) on a bill that would ban the sale and distribution of ghost guns. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Dozens of gun control advocates flooded the plaza in front of the Maryland State House on Tuesday, demanding that lawmakers act to ban “ghost guns” after a student was shot with one of the untraceable firearms at a Montgomery County high school last week.

The rally on Lawyers’ Mall, which took place as senators were arriving for a floor session, was organized by the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) and Del. Lesley J. Lopez (D-Montgomery) are introducing a ghost gun ban for the second year in a row, with the support of House Judiciary Chair Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D).

“​​This year the bill is in the best posture has ever been,” Lopez said. “It is an outright ban.”

Lee and Lopez sponsored similar legislation during the 2021 regular session, but neither received a committee vote.

Lily Freeman, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, told rally attendees that she scrapped her original speech after a 15-year-old Magruder High School student was shot with a ghost gun Friday by a classmate.

“It feels almost pointless to say that I am numb and I am devastated — of course, I am,” Freeman said. “But I have been made to feel that my emotions don’t matter — that students’ emotions don’t matter — because we have seen such little change in our lives when it comes to gun violence.”

“…it is not teenager’s job to advocate for common-sense gun legislation,” she continued as the crowd surrounding her cheered.

Use of ghost guns has risen substantially in the last two years.

According to Denise Reid, a chaplain for the Baltimore City Police Department and a Maryland leader in Moms Demand Action, as of Nov. 2021, city police recovered 294 ghost guns — a 133.3% increase from 2020 and a 914% increase from 2019.

Discussion of some of the rally topics filtered to an otherwise uneventful senate floor session.

Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), standing to speak on a point of personal privilege, decried the crime rate across the state — with a particular focus on the homicide rate in Baltimore City.

Simonaire spoke about the Montgomery County school shooting, then quickly pivoted to city crime as he spoke of the shooting deaths of Chesley Patterson, a Little Italy restaurant general manager, and Cheryl McCormack, a grandmother and DoorDash delivery driver — both of which occurred Monday.

According to the Baltimore Sun’s Homicide Database, the city has seen 30 homicides since the start of 2022. There have been more than 300 homicides annually in Baltimore since 2015.

“We need to take bold action because what we’re seeing is little action or ineffective action,” Simonaire told the chamber. “Because year after year, we come back here and we see the same numbers: children, men, women — victims — and I’m hoping this year is the year we can start to get these violent criminals off the streets so we don’t have to get up and talk about these people.”

Democrats and Republicans across both chambers have been at odds over how to address violent crime in the state.

The minority party has continually backed bills introduced by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to track judicial sentencing trends and impose tougher sentences on people repeatedly convicted of violent crimes.

Senate Democrats have pushed back, stating that state-provided services are needed to help reduce the rate, and opposing anti-crime rhetoric that focuses on the city of Baltimore alone.

“There are actions that could be taken,” Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) said in a rebuttal to Simonaire. “There are actions that could have been taken during the nine months while we weren’t in the legislature.”

McCray pointed to a Department of Legislative Services report that there were 151 vacant positions at the Division of Parole and Probation as of Dec. 1.

“We know that a number of the folks that are committing the crimes are on parole and probation, and while we talk about passion and the crime that’s happening throughout the state of Maryland … I would like to see that same type of passion when we’re talking about state agencies that we had the oversight for,” McCray said.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) also stood in opposition to Simonaire’s remarks, saying that lawmakers could provide social services to forestall criminal activity.

“We’re all hearing from people whose children are taking care of grandma and the baby, can’t go to school, doesn’t have broadband, and doesn’t have much of a future unless the rest of us do better,” she said.

Senate Minority Whip Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said that the legislature “can’t just keep talking about resources” and that they need to focus on tougher sentencing policy.

“​​We’re in a triage situation … it’s not just the city of Baltimore,” Ready said. “In surrounding areas, it’s become a bigger issue, as well.”

As Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) moved to end the debate on the floor, Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City) stood to speak.

Impassioned, and in spite of calls from the president to stop, Hayes said that “year after year” he has sat in the chamber as Republicans railed against crime in the city and Prince George’s counties but offered no solutions other than prosecution.

“Mr. President, with all due respect, I hear you, but I’m tired … and if we want to have this debate every day for the rest of this session, I welcome that opportunity,” Hayes cried out.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Ferguson said that his “heart breaks” for those killed in Baltimore in recent days and that all levels of government need to coordinate to allay the violence.

“However, debate on the Senate floor must remain orderly. There is a time and place, and we should all remember we are here to help solve problems and not politicize the serious issue of crime in our state,” the statement said.