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Gun Violence Forum Draws Maryland Leaders

Gale Horton Gay | 2/6/2013, 1:37 p.m.

The challenge of addressing gun violence in Maryland was the focus of a recent forum convened by the state's attorney general.

The forum brought together law enforcement officials and community leaders from throughout the state to Westminster Hall on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore on Feb. 4.

"I can think of few issues more important and in need of practical solution than gun violence,"said Phoebe Haddon, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. She said that due to recent shooting incidents - such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December that took the lives of 20 children and six adults - the nation may be at a "tipping point" to change its gun culture.

Attorney General Doug Gansler said "there's no panacea to gun violence in the U.S. and here in Maryland. There really is middle ground in this whole gun issue. We have to figure out what's the right answer for our society."

Among the participants in the forum: Angela Alsobrooks, Prince George's County state's attorney; Scott Shellenberger, Baltimore County state's attorney; Sgt. Kenny Berger of the Montgomery County Police Department, and Vinny Marco of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. They counted among 22 participants who made opening remarks or were involved in one of two panel discussions.

While some of the speakers talked about statistics and programs that have been initiated to curb gun violence, Alsobrooks said it was important to remember the "faces and lives behind every number." She cited several cases such as a 2-year-old who was shot in the face by a 17-year-old and how the younger boy came to court with a tracheotomy tube in his neck. The teen was sentenced to 25 years of incarceration. She called the case a double tragedy for both families.

Alsobrooks said Maryland is one of only seven states that have no laws addressing individuals who make threats of mass violence and said she favors legislation that would make such threats a felony.

Ronald Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, said federal legislation is needed to improve the gun violence situation, adding that "Maryland has an important role to play. What Maryland does resonates well in Washington. If Maryland moves forward on this issue, it could create momentum [nationwide]."

Tom Manger, police chief of Montgomery County, said that the mental health aspect of the gun debate is one of the most difficult to "get our hands around because of privacy issues" and how to "connect the dots of people who shouldn't be around firearms."

Tara Harrison-Jackson, principal deputy in the Prince George's County state's attorney office, said she served on a task force that dealt with making recommendations on persons with mental illness and their access to firearms.

"It's challenging," said Harrison-Jackson. "We want to make sure in our efforts to protect the community we're not infringing on the rights of persons with mental illness."

She also said it was critical to engage community partners and win the trust of the community.

"More often than not, persons witness gun violence, [and] then they don't want to talk about it or step forward," said Harrison-Jackson.

Several of the speakers voiced their support for Gov. Martin O'Malley who has pledged to push for tougher statewide gun control laws.

According to a handout at the forum, there are 26 House bills and 13 Senate bills related to gun and gun safety legislation being considered by the Maryland General Assembly.

S. Todd Yeary, senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, urged those who attended to approach the challenges from a practical standpoint.

"My appeal is to do what makes common sense," said Yeary.