TOWSON — The Baltimore County Council passed the Secure All Firearms Effectively (SAFE) Act on Jan. 21 with a 7-1 vote.
Proposed last November by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. and Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt, the SAFE Act requires firearm retail establishments in Baltimore County to install responsible security measures to protect their inventory from potential burglaries. Baltimore County Councilman Todd Crandell, R-7, was the lone “no” vote.
“This bill is deeply flawed and gives the County Executive and the Police Chief unchecked authority over the retail gun industry now, and in the future, by allowing these offices to regulate the firearm industry by adding more bureaucracy and unnecessary security costs, all resulting in higher costs for our locally owned gun shops to stay in business and in this county,” Crandell told The Dundalk Eagle in a written statement. “The bill also assumes that gun shops are the problem; the facts do not support this assumption. Gun shops are not the problem. Criminals are the problem.”
The SAFE Act mandates that retail firearm store owners in Baltimore County can only operate their establishments if they obtain a license, which can be acquired once each establishment shows it is protected by a county-approved safety plan.
“Burglaries at retail establishments possess a real and pressing issue of concern,” Chief Hyatt told the Baltimore County Council ahead of the vote. “Right here in Baltimore County, seven retail establishments were burglarized 13 times in 2018 and 2019, including three incidents after we announced this bill in November.”
Chief Hyatt said 51 firearms were stolen during one of those 13 incidents, meaning 51 firearms are possessed by criminals.
“We know that stolen weapons are often sold or traded to criminals, providing many who would otherwise be barred from owning firearms with weapons used to commit violent crimes,” Chief Hyatt said.
Crandell contested Hyatt’s testimony regarding break-ins at gun shops in Baltimore County in his statement, saying that intruders were successful in breaking into gun shops on only three of those 13 incidents, and that one intruder was caught fleeing the scene during one of those three incidents.
“While the data does not add up to a need for legislation, I question the constitutionality of the bill, since firearms are regulated by federal and state governments,” Crandell said. “This bill happened due to a loophole which specifies regulating a gun shop within a certain distance from public gathering places. One gun shop not near any public gathering places is included in the bill because it was determined the gun shop itself is a public gathering places. When public officials try to advance an agenda, logic tends to go out the window.”
Other mandatory safety measures include establishments must be monitored at all times by an alarm system registered with the county and a video system, and must have physical security elements, such as physical barriers to prevent vehicle intrusion, security gates or security screens protecting the outsides of windows and the outsides of doors.
Katina Salisbury, Owner of Maryland Police Supply in Essex, said she has no problem implementing and practicing safety measures but is concerned about how much the new amendments to the SAFE Act will cost her.
“As a gun store owner, I will do everything to keep it safe but we are already taxed and pay fees on federal and state levels and I’m just wondering what this will now cost me,” Salisbury said.
Salisbury said she knows several other gun shop owners who, regardless of their many safety measures, were robbed.
“So people already have these safety measures in place but they got robbed anyways. These [robbers] are then sent to jail but only served a few months of their sentence. Judges need to send people to jail longer for this,” Salisbury said.
The SAFE Act requires all establishments to keep firearms in a safe, a secured room or cage, or behind security shutters when those establishments are closed. An allowable alternative to this live security guard coverage.
Seven amendments added to the bill were approved ahead of the vote. One amendment requires a decision on gun shop license applications within 60 days. Another amendment removed licensing and fees from the bill. Another amendment that was passed creates grants that match up to $10,000 for existing gun shows and provides no-interest loans.
Retail firearm establishments have less than 180 days to become compliant with SAFE Act regulations.
The day after the SAFE Act vote, Olszewski and Hyatt introduced a new public safety plan, a multipronged plan focused on combating violent crime.
“Keeping our communities safe is among the most important responsibilities of government. Any increase in violent crime is unacceptable,” Olszewski said in a press release. “We refuse to normalize violence in our communities.”
The new public safety plan focuses on five key priority areas to reduce violent crime. The first is improved data and analysis. According to a Baltimore County Government press release, the Baltimore County Police Department (BCoPD) will establish a Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), a physical center where real-time data, human intelligence, and technology are combined to drive effective deployment of resources. The RTCC will be led by experienced civilian crime analysts working alongside police officers. The RTCC will be primarily focused on the precincts that experience the greatest amount of gun violence.
The second key area is focused crime prevention. According to the release, Baltimore County will increase the Baltimore County Police Department’s discretionary crime-fighting resources, enabling law enforcement to increase targeted crime prevention initiatives in “hot-spots” and at key times of activity. Coordination between the RTCC and the existing Comstat process will improve law enforcement’s ability to identify the small number of violent offenders in our communities and deploy strategies to prevent violence and victimization.
The third key priority area is to attract and retain talent. Baltimore County will continue to invest in strategies to attract and retain high quality police officers, according to the release. BCoPD recently reduced the number of sworn vacancies significantly, but attrition and retirements continue. Baltimore County will implement a pilot program for “take-home vehicles” this year, invest more in additional local recruitment efforts, implement foreign language proficiency stipends and referral bonuses, and conduct a comprehensive review of our hiring process.
The fourth key priority area is innovative strategies. According to the release, Baltimore County will continue to embrace proven violence reduction strategies to improve supervision and accountability. Last year, BCoPD expanded the number of area sectors from two to three, each led by a Major, allowing area commanders to more effectively focus resources. BCoPD also established a permanently-assigned Night Commander to provide further supervision and leadership overnight.
This year, Baltimore County will identify and implement proven violence reduction strategies, including seeking public and private resources to establish an Office of Public Safety to coordinate innovative violence reduction strategies and to convene stakeholders.
The fifth key priority area is forming strong partnerships. Public safety has regional implications and requires regional solutions, according to the release. Last year, Baltimore County stepped up to play a leading role in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) with other local, state, and federal partners and continues to coordinate with the State’s Attorney’s Office on building and prosecuting high quality cases, particularly for violent gun crimes.
This year, Baltimore County is increasing coordination and information sharing with the Baltimore Police Department about regional crime concerns and areas around the City/County border. Baltimore County is also working with the State and our Delegation to expand successful strategies such as the Warrant Apprehension Task Force (WATF) and the Regional Auto Theft Task Force (RATT). We have also increased strategic collaboration with the State Division of Parole and Probation, including through joint supervision efforts and having Parole and Probation agents participate in Comstat.
In addition to these interventions, Baltimore County will continue to support additional upstream interventions in order to prevent violence from occurring in the first place, including ongoing commitment to investment in education, recreational opportunities, and strategies to grow youth summer employment, and proactive community engagement.