Sparked by concerns over an increase in violent crime, Maryland Republican lawmakers on Thursday rallied behind a package of gun crime bills days after Democratic Gov. Wes Moore announced massive public safety spending, including nearly $200 million on local law enforcement initiatives.
Several dozen GOP legislators implored Democrats to help them strip juvenile justice reforms the General Assembly passed last year and to impose stronger penalties on those who commit crimes with guns or those who steal them.
“We know there are root causes to crime,” said Sen. Justin Ready, who represents Carroll County. “But you know what? It’s time to take it out on the people who are committing the crimes.”
Ready said there must be a balance struck between supporting troubled youth and “swift and certain accountability for criminal activity,” and asked for bipartisan support.
“If the will is there, from what is a supermajority Democratic majority here in the General Assembly ... we can get this done,” Ready said.
Having Democrats onboard is essential for a vastly outnumbered Republican caucus. But the majority party continues to move in a different direction. Democrats have drafted laws ending the practice of automatically sentencing youth under age 18 as adults and expanding alternatives to detention, part of a long list of changes sought by activists.
Several of the bills in the Republican package have previously been before the legislature and have yet to become law. However, one new proposal would give the court more discretion on children aged 10 to 12 who are in possession of a gun.
Anne Arundel County Del. Nicholaus Kipke’s bill would alter juvenile justice reforms passed last year. A 2022 law kept the state from acting when, in January, an Anne Arundel County middle schooler brought a gun to school, he said.
A court has jurisdiction over children 13 and older, and children as young as 10, but only those who commit violent crimes, according to the law. But because the 12-year-old didn’t commit an act of violence, the court had no jurisdiction.
“There is nothing that can legally be done to find out what’s going on in that kid’s life. And to get that kid help,” he said.
Kipke’s “Juvenile Gun Offenses Accountability Act of 2023″ would allow courts to charge youths as young as 10 with gun crimes.
“We cannot expect young people to fully understand the impact of crimes that they might commit if we do not hold them accountable,” he said. “And holding them accountable does not mean just throwing a kid in jail.”
Kipke instead prescribed “court-ordered therapy, court-ordered behavioral modification, finding out what’s going on with the parents of that child and ordering that things be done.”
“It’s insane not to have tools in the toolbox to change this,” he said.
The bill does not mandate Kipke’s recommended solutions.
Other legislation would make first-time gun theft a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, one of two bills that would change rules around gun theft. Current legislation ties gun theft to the value of the stolen property.
The bill’s main sponsor, Del. Rachel Muñoz, who represents Anne Arundel County, said she filed the bill prior to her spouse experiencing an armed robbery at his workplace in February. Police apprehended a man suspected of robbing at gunpoint the pharmacy where Muñoz’s husband works, Annapolis Professional Pharmacy, according to news reports. But law enforcement has not reported to the delegate how the gun used in the incident was obtained, Muñoz said.
“All I’m here to do is plead with the Maryland General Assembly to take real action in preventing violent crime,” Muñoz said. “I don’t want anyone else to have to lose a son or a daughter, a mother or father, a grandmother, a grandfather, a neighbor to senseless violence and crime that we have the power to prevent.”
One Frederick County senator echoed the concerns of his colleagues and is proposing a bill that makes the use of a gun in a violent crime a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
“Right now, criminals don’t fear consequences,” said Sen. Bill Folden, who also works as a law enforcement officer.
Folden said he knows public safety is also a priority for the governor and said he wants Moore to use his influence to expedite change.
“We’re just asking him to rally everybody behind him and be the tip of the spear towards making Maryland a safer place,” Folden said. “Now. It can’t wait.”