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Baltimore County Council Hears Constituents Express Pros and Cons of SAFE Act Which Seeks to Secure Firearm Inventory

Roughly 10 people testified on Tuesday during a Baltimore County work session about the Secure All Firearms Effectively (SAFE) Act.

During a respectful discussion on a usually heated topic of debate involving firearm legislation, council members heard constituents express the pros and cons of the bill which the county council will vote on next Monday.

The upshot: Police Chief Melissa Hyatt assured the community that the legislation did not signal the removal of rights from gun shop owners and those who choose to purchase firearms legally.  But said that the impetus behind the bill is to protect the community from stolen guns finding their way to Baltimore County and surrounding area streets.  Opponents of the bill mostly criticized the burden, expense to upgrade their establishments, vagueness about required fees and red tape they say the new regulation would create.

Proposed by Hyatt and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski in November, the SAFE Act will require that all firearm retail establishments and temporary gun shows – located within 100 yards of a park, house of worship, school, public building, or other place of public assembly in Baltimore County – implement a combination of certain security measures in order to protect their inventory from theft.

Over 65 guns have been stolen from seven Baltimore County firearm retailers over the last two years. Olszewski said in November that, “Although firearm establishments are protected by staff during the day, some do not secure their firearms after business hours… there are no current requirements for retail establishments to secure their stores or their inventory after they close.”

If passed, the SAFE Act will require the firearm retailers to obtain licenses in order to store firearm inventory.

In order to obtain the license, retailers and gun show venues would have to beef up security measures with a combination of 24-hour monitoring by an alarm system that is registered with the county, video surveillance, bollards or other barriers to prevent vehicle intrusion, security gates or screens for doors and windows (or a vestibule at entry), and a safe, secure room, cage or security shutters for the storage of firearms.

Language in the bill suggests that “grandfathering of certain dealers under certain circumstances” may be provided. But at least one Baltimore County gun shop – Free State Gun Range – has been considered a place of public assembly in itself, due to its size and capacity which allows a large customer base.

At issue are 18 of 19 gun shops in the county that meet the criteria needing to upgrade their facilities and would be required to comply and obtain a license.

Hyatt said that although many guns shops are responsible and are already taking steps to secure their inventories after hours, the police department has been unable to convince all of them to secure their merchandise sufficiently.

She said it is a public safety concern and that what her department is requesting is a “bare minimum” set of safety standards.

Since proposing the legislation, Hyatt said that three more cases of gun shop burglaries have occurred in Baltimore County. “It’s about nothing more than ensuring that a minimum level of security is a baseline for all of these establishments….We are proposing a flexible bill that respects the unique circumstances of each business,” she said.

Two of the three gun shop owners, whose burglaries have been cited as statistics used to promote the bill, testified in opposition.

A former 40-year Baltimore County police officer and 37-year gun shop owner who owns The Gun Shop, an Essex-based establishment that was burglarized, said his were the 51 guns which were stolen last year.

He said that four days after getting electrical work done at his store, he was burglarized when his alarm was found to have been disabled by the electrical workers he hired – who all passed background checks – which allowed the burglars undetected entry.

The owner of a Halethorpe gun shop that was robbed of seven guns said keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals is important, but that “this bill is not it.”  He said that his store already exceeds the provisions that would be required by the county, but requiring him to obtain a license “to do something that we do,” would not reduce crime.

He noted that the burglars who entered his store cut a hole in his roof and “Sawsalled” a wall which would not be prevented by the SAFE Act.  He noted that criminals would find a way in and that “no amount of legislation would prevent burglaries by those who seek to steal the guns.”

“No matter what we do, they find a way,” he said. “They find a hole, we fill it. They find another hole and we fill it.  Once the criminals find out what we have, they just find a way around it,” he said. And he put the onus on the judicial branch that releases criminals before their jail sentences are complete. “The gentleman stole seven firearms that were recovered immediately, but he was on a 7-year (prison) sentence, but was out in 14 months.”

Christa Nickels, an attorney with Brady United Against Gun Violence, said The SAFE Act would ensure that guns are not stolen and diverted from people who are able to buy them legally.  Nickels said “The guns that get stolen from shops almost certainly end up in the criminal market,” she said. “Once a gun in stolen, it could have untold impact on public safety.”

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, said complaints he has heard from his constituents involve the regulatory and logistical quagmire that would ensue due to the expense and currently undisclosed fees the firearm establishments would have to pay the county.  He said that the county council would be asked to vote on legislation when “we don’t know what the fee is yet.”

Perry Hall Republican Councilman David Marks said he is considering amendments surrounding the costs that firearm retailers would be expected to pay.

Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said that the intent of the SAFE Act is to protect Baltimore County businesses from “sophisticated attacks on people who do business in Baltimore County and our gun shops here.”

Patoka said that the potential for organized attacks that allow even one or more “assault weapons” on the streets are enough to justify the bill. “How do you quantify a life? How do you quantify one life,” he said. “That makes me nervous that there are potentially 60 weapons – potentially 60 assault weapons are out there in the hands of 60 bad guys… What we can do on our piece of the planet – called Baltimore County – is to keep our citizenry as safe as possible…” he said.

Crandell likened the issue to forcing all drivers to submit to breathalyzer tests for the few who drive drunk.  Patoka responded that the issues were not comparable.

Crandell also said that the judicial branch needs to step up its efforts to hold those convicted of crimes to increased accountability, noting the shortened prison sentences for those convicted of crimes.

Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, called the bill “thoughtful,” but suggested the county provide grants or low-interest loans to help businesses bring their establishments up to the proposed safety standards which has been estimated by some gun retailers to range from a few thousand to over $50,000 in order to get into compliance with the provisions of the SAFE Act.

Bevins said, “I hope we as a county, if this bill does pass, that we help businesses come into compliance.”

John Joslin from 2A Maryland said his organization is “not opposed to gun shop security. However we are very opposed to the language of this bill.”

Joslin said, “The bill is poorly crafted. It is not ready for prime time,” and he noted that the organizers of gun shows would not be responsible for complying with the law, but up to 80-90 individual gun dealers would be required to obtain licenses from the county for two-day gun shows.

Noting three successful burglaries over the last six years, where seven gun dealers’ shops were breached, totaling 13 entries, three dealers had inventory stolen between 2012 and 2019. While 67 firearms were stolen, seven were immediately recovered.  But Joslin said that the SAFE Act is an “overreaction” to a problem that is not very significant in the county.

Baltimore County Sherriff Jay Fisher spoke in favor of the bill, saying that the SAFE Act is a “straightforward public safety solution.”

Firearm establishments would have six months to bring their stores into compliance with the legislation if passed on Monday. The bill would be enacted within 45 days from the vote.
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