The Prince George’s County’s chapter of the NAACP is hoping to stop County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) from signing a countywide gun offender registry program into law, claiming the law is unconstitutional.
The registry program, passed June 5 by the County Council with a 9-0 vote, would establish a police-kept registry for those convicted of gun-related crimes who would have to check in with police every six months for three years in addition to providing information such as phone numbers and where they live and work. Legislation for the registry was introduced by County Councilwoman Karen R. Toles (D-Dist. 7) of Suitland and co-sponsored by the entire council to serve as “a deterrent to gun offenders” to reduce the amount of gun-related crimes and homicides in the county, Toles has said.
Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met June 21 to discuss their opposition, saying the bill violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits governments from depriving a person’s life, liberty and property without first taking certain steps to ensure fairness. In addition, they are citing flaws in similar legislation in Baltimore for a gun-offender registry that is currently up for potential appeal after a city circuit court judge said April 6 that the legislation was unconstitutional and too vague.
“Everyone I mention this to, they think it’s crazy,” said Bob Ross, NAACP chapter president. “I understand what [the county] is trying to do, but they’re beginning to define our community by crime. We should never define our community by crime.”
Since the legislation’s passing in the council, Baker has 45 days to sign the bill, giving him a July 20 deadline.
Ross said if Baker does sign the bill, he plans to start a petition to take it to a referendum to let county residents decide whether to force gun offenders to put their information into a police database.
“The council must talk to the residents. They can’t sit there and not talk to the residents,” Ross said. “The legislators represent us. They should at least come out and talk about it.”
Last year, Prince George’s police recovered 977 guns from incidents linked to 180 nonfatal shootings, according to county police. There were also 95 homicides in 2011 of which 64 involved guns. As of early June, 523 weapons had been recovered this year and there had been 63 nonfatal shootings. In addition, there were 21 county homicides and 18 of which involved guns as of mid-May.
Critics of the plan have also said the registry would prevent ex-offenders from “having a second chance” by hurting their ability to acquire and hold a job.
Barry Stanton, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for public safety, said the NAACP’s concerns are being addressed as the county is looking to pass a resolution to accompany the bill that outlines the policies and procedures for how the registry will operate. He said if a gun offender is disadvantaged in terms of securing employment, it is only because they’ve been convicted of a gun offense, not because they are on a registry.
“When you have at least 180 shootings like we had last year, we have to do something in Prince George’s County, and I believe we’re making great progress,” he said. “When you talk about placing restrictions on ex-offenders, the fact that an ex-offender is charged with crime already puts them in a negative situation.”
Stanton said he does not see any reason why Baker would not sign the registry bill into law.
Cheverly resident Joseph Kitchen, 26, said the registry will hurt the community.
“This is bad ... It’s going to hurt employment opportunities and cause more crime. It will be harder for people to get a job and harder to find a place to live, so it will cause people to commit more crimes,” Kitchen said.
About 15 NAACP members attended the monthly chapter meeting at First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover, voicing their own reasons for opposing the legislation.
“I don’t think it’s a good practice to put somebody in a bind for a first offense,” said Daisy Cherry Maggett, 69, of Capitol Heights. “This keeps them from getting jobs and messes up everything. Sometimes people make mistakes, and everyone deserves a second chance.”
Toles has stated that the registry does not hurt anyone’s ability for a “second chance” and is a program that helps ensure ex-offenders stay on a crime-free path.
“In the past, if you get out of jail, you go about your normal routine and may come back again for the same thing in a couple months,” Toles told The Gazette in May. “This is an effort to watch you to make sure you’re not going to go out there and repeat this offense.”