The Baltimore Police Department’s decades of gun seizures have not reduced violent crimes such as nonfatal shootings and murders. Through public information requests, Battleground Baltimore obtained the police department’s gun seizure numbers and other related police and crime data between 1990-2021—a time period of 31 years in which the city surpassed 300 homicides per year 17 times.
A close look at the data reveals what more and more people working in the criminal legal system across the country have argued: Seizing “illegal” guns does not reduce violent crime, although gun seizures and gun possession arrests remain metrics frequently cited by police (and praised as a prime example of “proactive policing”).
“The current intense focus on illegal gun possession without a license is having no effect on the gun violence crisis,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner wrote in a report released in January that looked at 2,000 shootings.
Comparing Baltimore City numbers from 2019, the year with the most homicides over the past 30 years, with 2011, the year with the least murders during the same time period, shows Krasner’s argument is true in Baltimore, too.
In 2019 in Baltimore City, there were 348 murders, 2,203 gun seizures, and 1,161 weapons possession arrests. In 2011, there were 196 murders, 2,178 gun seizures, and 1,224 weapons possession arrests.
The graphs below show, year-to-year, the number of gun seizures and weapons possession arrests and the number of murders and nonfatal shootings (only available since 2000).
Readers should note that the Y-axis for each graph above is significantly different, but splitting the data across two graphs makes the year-to-year fluctuations more apparent. Battleground Baltimore has also provided a graph at the bottom of this article that puts all four of these parameters on the same graph.
Additionally, numbers for nonfatal shootings are not available before 2000. According to the Baltimore Police Department, nonfatal shootings before that year were categorized as “aggravated assault” and fell in with a number of other violent crimes. As a result, the exact number of nonfatal shootings—a core metric of police violence reduction—is not easily accessible. The general trend since 2000, however, has been that the number of nonfatal shootings at least doubles the number of murders.
Gun seizing is a Sisyphean task
It is not possible to seize enough guns to counter the number of guns currently out there, let alone respond to new legal or “illegal” guns introduced into the world. In 2021, Americans purchased nearly 19 million guns.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld told me in 2018 that he began to realize that seizing guns was a bit like fighting the drug war. It felt “endless,” he explained.
“In Baltimore, at the peak of when we were seizing guns—when we were really effective going after guns and trying to get guns off the street—Baltimore PD would take in about 2,500 to 3,000 guns,” Bealefeld said. “Every year in the state of Maryland—every year—30,000 brand-new guns were being sold. We would seize 4,000 and high-five and claim victory and have photographs. But we can’t even keep up with the flow they sold that year.”
Bealefeld was commissioner from the middle of 2007 to about the middle of 2012, a period in which Baltimore City famously reduced arrests while also reducing homicides. In 2006, Baltimore Police made 90,283 arrests and the city endured 276 homicides. In 2011, Bealefeld’s last full year as commissioner, Baltimore Police arrested 60,009 people and there were 196 homicides, the lowest the city has seen since 1977 when there were 171 homicides.
Gun seizures and weapons possession arrests also dropped during this 2007-2012 “Bealefeld era.” In 2006, there were 3,055 seizures and 1,348 weapon possession arrests. In 2011, there were 2,178 seizures and 1,244 weapon possession arrests.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has also questioned the efficacy of focusing on gun possession. “We need to recognize that not every person charged with possessing an illegal gun in New York City is a driver of violence,” Bragg wrote on his campaign website. “My dad had an illegal gun not because he liked guns or because he was ‘dangerous’; he had a gun because of crime in the neighborhood. This was not an idle notion.”
Daniel Carlin-Weber, a Baltimore-based firearms instructor and gun rights advocate who is white, told Battleground Baltimore “that Black citizens have the laws disproportionately enforced” against them when it comes to gun possession.
“Maryland is continuing to effectively eliminate the Second Amendment for whole classes of people who deserve to be able to exercise it like anyone else,” he said.
Carlin-Weber also referenced advocacy by the Black Attorneys for Legal Aid and The Bronx Defenders, who have argued that gun possession enforcement fundamentally “criminalize[s] gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities.”
During a State Senate hearing on “ghost guns” this week, State Senator Will Smith noted that he is “struggling mightily” with navigating additional gun laws and increased penalties for possession because this increases already racially disproportionate policing.
“A lot of the laws we’d put into place for gun safety would disparately impact Black and Brown communities,” Smith said. “Some of the legislation we’ve got before us puts more Black and Brown young men essentially into jail.”
Gun seizing cops create chaos
Not only are gun seizures not reducing crime, the tactic destabilizes Black communities where “gun interdiction” is prioritized and almost exclusively enforced.
Baltimore City has seen some of the worst of what gun policing has to offer. The Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a plainclothes investigative unit formed in 2007 specifically to go after the so-called “bad guys with guns,” was federally indicted in 2017 for criminal conspiracy. Publicly, the unit was praised for its gun seizure numbers (very few of which stood up to enough scrutiny to take to trial). In reality, the task force was using its gun-seizing mission to terrorize citizens, often illegally stopping people and then robbing them.
In 2016, the last full year GTTF was active, there were 2,124 gun seizures. In 2017 (GTTF was indicted in March 2017) there were 1,917 gun seizures. A year after Baltimore City’s GTTF was federally indicted, and amid city and state-level conversations about police reform and ending plainclothes policing, gun seizures actually increased.
In 2018, the number of gun seizures nearly doubled at 3,911.
The behavior of Baltimore’s gun unit was extreme, but corruption among so-called “hard-charging” gun units is common. Last year, a former Metropolitan Police Department commander reached out to me because of the behavior they had seen within the Gun Recovery Unit, or “GRU,” in Washington, DC.
“Leadership focuses on how many guns GRU recovers and if an arrest is made with the recovery,” the former commander told me. “There is very little, if any, review of how the gun was recovered or how the arrest was made.”
Following George Floyd’s murder and nationwide demands for police accountability, New York City announced it would be disbanding its so-called “Anti-Crime” units, which operate similar to gun units in Baltimore and DC.
“The Anti-Crime units’ aggressive mentality seeded resentment. Frequent car stops and daily frisks in Black and Latino neighborhoods bred anger over a perceived disregard for residents’ constitutional rights,” George Joseph and Gabriel Sandoval wrote. “Because of the combative nature of their assignments, Anti-Crime and other plainclothes officers generated numerous civilian complaints and were at the center of a disproportionate number of fatal police shootings.”
As Fordham University Law Professor John Pfaff noted in Slate this week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams “promises to revive the NYPD’s undercover ‘anti-crime units’—disbanded in 2020 amid concerns about unconstitutional stops and excessive violence—and rechristen them ‘Neighborhood Safety Teams,’ deploying 400 to 500 officers on the streets to focus on ‘gun removals.’”
More broadly, Pfaff’s article is about the Philadelphia shootings report and how Krasner’s commentary and data analysis counters Adam’s much-ballyhooed tough-on-crime plan.
“Gun violence is an immediate concern,” Pfaff wrote. “But much of the data provided by the Philadelphia report…caution[s] that a broad-brush effort to stop the flow of guns may accomplish little on its own terms, and may even exacerbate some of the underlying causes of violence.”
Baltimore Police’s plummeting clearance rate
Locally, the most vocal critics of this gun-grabbing, statistics-driven strategy have been gun rights advocates, such Maryland Shall Issue. In testimony provided to legislators earlier this month, Maryland Shall Issue cited gun seizing’s inability to reduce violence as reason for opposing laws that would increase penalties for possessing a “ghost gun.”
“There is no correlation (much less cause and effect) between guns seized and violent crime. A more relevant statistic is the clearance rate for serious crimes,” Maryland Shall Issue’s statement reads. “BPD’s arrest clearance rate for murder in 2020 was a merely 28.7% and only 44.9% in 2011. By comparison, the nationwide clearance rate for murder is 54.4%. Baltimore’s clearance rate for homicides is plainly abysmal, a reality that does not go unnoticed by violent criminals and law-abiding citizens alike.”
Data obtained by Battleground Baltimore shows that since 1990, the annual homicide clearance rate has significantly declined. In 1990, the clearance rate was 75.7%. In 2021, it was 42%. Arrests for murders have also plummeted. In 1990, there were 347 arrests for murder. In 2020, there were 102 (Baltimore Police did not provide Battleground Baltimore with 2021’s number).
Krasner has argued that going after gun possession “distracts from successfully investigating shootings” and gets in the way of actually reducing violence through solving cases.
Consider the machinations police in Baltimore are willing to go through to seize just one gun. In a high-profile 2017 arrest, Baltimore Police Officer David Burch searched a Black man named Rasherd Lewis inside of a convenience store because, according to Burch, he had a tip that Lewis had a gun on him. Burch, who said he discovered where Lewis was via Citiwatch surveillance, approached Lewis, claimed he smelled cannabis on him, and used the cannabis smell to search him, where he found a handgun.
In 2020, the Maryland Court of Appeals said that Burch’s search of Lewis, which resulted in the handgun charge, was unconstitutional.
Additionally, the police’s inability to reduce violence no matter the number of guns seized puts people at risk, and that means they are more apt to obtain a gun for protection—“illegally,” if they must.
“Most [at-risk youth] possessed or used guns out of a generalized fear of being victimized or a specific fear of retaliation. A history of violence victimization also informed the decision to carry a firearm,” the National Institute For Justice wrote last year. “Many also reportedly felt a pervasive fear of the state, particularly law enforcement.”
Baltimore City Police Department Commissioner Michael Harrison has frequently focused on gun seizures. Following a series of shootings around Memorial Day 2021, Harrison spoke to local television affiliate Fox45 and said that crime in Baltimore is the way it is because there is “a lack of consequences for carrying guns.”
Harrison pretty much said the same thing in 2019 after a burst of troubling shootings around Memorial Day. Then, he promised that police would be “aggressive” about going after guns.
Recently, Mayor Brandon Scott bemoaned an especially deadly January, with 36 homicides and 49 nonfatal shootings, but stressed that police were working on it. There were 111 “gun arrests” in January, he boasted.
One of the reasons for seizing guns is not only to get them “off the street” but to use them as evidence and trace them to other crimes. But last week, when Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison was asked how often guns that are seized are traced back to crimes, he said he did not know.
“I don’t have those statistics at my disposal at this moment,” Harrison said.