Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates on Wednesday came to Annapolis to push his bill that would increase the maximum sentence for people who are 21 and older for wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit to five years in prison — a proposal that drew opposition from than a dozen people including gun rights supporters and criminal justice reform advocates.
Right now, the maximum sentence for wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun without a permit is three years for people who are 21 and older. Five years is the highest penalty for those 18 to 20 years old.
Bates has argued that increasing the maximum sentence is necessary to ensure fairness and serve as a deterrent. He said he’s drawn on his previous experience as a defense attorney and pushed back against critics who cite research that has found that laws and policies that increase penalties are ineffective in preventing crime.
“When individuals know that there is a harsher penalty for carrying these illegal handguns, some will think twice,” Bates testified in the House Judiciary Committee. “Not everybody. But some will think twice.”
“Do I think it will have an effect?” he added. “It is one of the tools in the toolbox that will have some sort of an effect.”
Del. Frank Conaway Jr., a Democrat from Baltimore, is a lead sponsor of the bill. State Sen. Cory McCray, another Baltimore Democrat, recently introduced the legislation but it has not yet received a hearing date.
Meanwhile, state Sen. William Folden, a Republican from Frederick County, has introduced a similar proposal. The Maryland Senate Republican Caucus has listed the bill as one of its legislative priorities for the 2023 session.
Bates testified as part of a panel of five people who spoke in favor of the legislation. Elected officials such as Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, both Democrats, have also come out in support of the bill.
Steven Kroll, executive director of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said the proposal received the unanimous support of all 24 state’s attorneys.
“We need something, if not a little bit, just to show that we’re tired, we’re fed up and enough is enough,” said former Del. Chanel Branch, a Democrat from Baltimore who served from 2020-2023 and lost her son, Tyrone Ray Jr., to gun violence in 2017.
Bates has repeatedly referenced illegal handguns when talking about the bill. The legislation, though, does not affect other charges that are already on the books including illegal possession of a regulated firearm and use of a handgun during the commission of a crime of violence.
Supporters note that the bill will not change the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony or require judges to hand down mandatory minimum sentences. But opponents argue that increasing the maximum sentence could subject otherwise law-abiding gun owners to harsher penalties for small infractions, exacerbate racial disparities and return the state to ineffective policies that rely on incarceration.
“There is a distinction in my mind as well between punishing people who are otherwise not disqualified and punishing people who are carrying even though they’re disqualified,” said Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, an organization that seeks to preserve and advance the rights of gun owners. “And this bill makes no distinction between that whatsoever.”
Marguerite Lanaux, district public defender for Baltimore, noted that Black men are stopped, arrested, denied bail, wrongfully convicted and issued long sentences at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
Bates, she said, is promoting a bill premised on hope, not proof, that increasing the maximum sentence will hopefully prevent killings. He has said he wants people to get a taste of prison, where they would be incarcerated farther away in places such as Cumberland, Hagerstown or Jessup.
Lanaux described that as a dangerous ideology.
“Keep the body locked away in order to take the mind. Break the will to resist,” Lanaux said. “Maryland’s history reminds us of the failures of this mentality. Our present-day reality awards us the shameful badge ranking amongst the leading states to incarcerate young, Black males.”
Yanet Amanuel, director of public policy at the ACLU of Maryland, said there is “no evidence that indicates that there is a public safety to benefit to increasing sentence lengths.”
But there is a large body of evidence that demonstrates the ways in which the bill will undermine public safety, said Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Warnken said proponents of the legislation “rely on a faulty set of assumptions about deterrence and have conflated certainty of consequences versus severity of consequences.” She said imprisonment takes a “staggering toll” on people, adding that “we will not incarcerate our way out of this problem.”
“We must have the courage to give these evidence-based solutions a chance to work rather than regressing to politically-expedient yet utterly failed strategies of the past,” Warnken said. “When we know better, we’re supposed to do better.”
She submitted written testimony with the support of more than 20 organizations and experts including public safety advocates, civil liberties groups and law professors.
DeRay Mckesson, executive director of Campaign Zero, an organization focused on ending mass incarceration and police violence, said the only data that Bates brought to the committee was information that showed the “historical failures of that office to convict people of these crimes.”
Mckesson said the state does not need a bill to correct an issue that is not a problem and pushed lawmakers to think of more imaginable solutions to challenges with public safety.
Bates has said prisoners are talking about his policies surrounding handguns. He hinted that he would play a jailhouse phone call but did not do so at the hearing.
“The idea that a singular jail call is enough to change statewide law,” Mckesson said, “is stunning to me.”