Baltimore police see rise in gun seizures for safekeeping

BALTIMORE - The voluntary surrender of firearms for safekeeping is a practice meant to take the lethality out of a combustible situation, typically used when police respond to domestic violence cases.

"This is not about infringing on anyone's second amendment rights.  It is not about taking a gun away from a person.  It is about making sure our citizens are safe and removing a potential threat that could cause someone to be a victim," Baltimore police Sgt. Jarron Jackson said.

The process Jarron explained is almost always voluntary except in the emergency petition of a person in mental distress.

It is simply a question police are now trained to ask when investigating a call where a gun could escalate the violence.

If the victim or family member admits to a gun in the home, police can then suggest they take it for safekeeping, a voluntary and temporary seizure backed by state law, police said.

“Absolutely, and this training is not just for domestic violence, it is in all the calls for service we are handling,” Jarron said. “We are thinking beyond the initial call. We are thinking what is going to happen tomorrow.  What is going to happen the next day?"

The surrendered firearm is then taken out of the home and placed in evidence control where detectives begin to investigate. Ballistics reports and background checks on the owner are performed before the gun is cleared to be returned.

It is a process happening at a nearly 400 percent increase, the department’s numbers show.

Guns seized for safekeeping by Baltimore police went from just 58 in 2008 up to an average of 200 in the last three years for a total of nearly a thousand guns in the past six plus years.

Half of that number of guns police said are returned to the owners after it is cleared, but the other half stay seized.

Guns belonging to owners who end up being disqualified because of certain criminal convictions under Maryland law are not returned.

But police say almost 50 percent of safekeeping firearms tested by the Evidence Control Unit are proven stolen, used in a previous crime or in the case of mental health wellness check; the person was never cleared by a physician.

“[For] someone that was medically evaluated, before I would even return it back to someone where we seized the weapon I will ask for a certificate from the registered owner to produce a doctor's certificate indicating that they are not a threat to themselves or the public," Det. Howard Jones said.

Gun seizures from the mentally distressed through an emergency petition are a smaller part of the safekeeping numbers but nonetheless a polarizing topic after the Santa Barbara shooting last month when sheriff's deputies there paid a wellness visit to eventual suspect Elliot Rodger.

But the lion’s share of safekeeping guns here in Baltimore are voluntarily seized in domestic violence disputes.  Police said the sharp rise in seizures comes from how officers approach victims.

"It was a time when we began to start shifting our thinking to say, not only are we going to handle the call, but what is the next step?” Jarron said. “We began asking the question, are there any guns in the house? Is there anything in the house or any other circumstances that can cause you to become an additional victim?"    

Safekeeping is a tactic some police departments employ around the country, but here in Baltimore it’s been on the rise, a commitment police say in trying to continually de-escalate potentially deadly situations.  

Calls made to the National Rifle Association seeking comment were not returned. 

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