IRON PIPELINE
Baltimore magazine|December 2020
THE HIGH-CAPACITY HANDGUNS FUELING BALTIMORE’S EPIDEMIC OF VIOLENCE INCREASINGLY ENTER THE CITY THROUGH AN UNDERGROUND NETWORK OF OUT-OF-STATE TRAFFICKERS. CAN ANYTHING BE DONE TO TURN OFF THE SPIGOT?
RON CASSIE

THE FIRST TIME SOMEONE SHOT AT HIM, Kevin Shird was a tall, skinny 16-year-old. He’d been playing basketball when another kid he barely knew walked up and accused Shird of disrespecting his girlfriend. When the teenager reached for the gun in his front waistband, “dip” in Baltimore parlance, Shird chucked the basketball under his arm at him and ran. The next time someone pulled a gun on Shird, he was 17, and the target of a street robbery. When he was 21, a guy took a shot at him in broad daylight on West Fayette Street over a neighborhood beef. This time, he shot back. Shird grew up in Edmondson Village. Not the easiest place to be a teenager. His father was a corrections officer and his mother worked at a department store, but raising four kids and paying for food, rent, and gas and electric bills was a lot to manage. The eviction was an ever-present threat. Sometimes the water got shut off. Getting three solid meals a day was a struggle at times, but getting a gun for protection wasn’t difficult at all. He’d known drug dealers since he was little, and he eventually went to work on a corner. His first gun was a .22 caliber Colt revolver, bought cheap from a heroin addict. Pretty quickly, he traded up to a .357 Magnum.

By 1992, in his early 20s, Shird was operating his own Diamond in the Raw drug crew in West Baltimore. The need for more guns, with greater capacity, had grown exponentially. He had to protect himself and his business, and six-shot revolvers no longer sufficed. Not with the semiautomatic Glock pistols—strong, lightweight handguns initially manufactured for the Austrian army and then heavily marketed in the U.S.— flooding the streets. The Baltimore police had already switched over from their service revolvers to semiautomatic Glocks in what was essentially becoming an arms race. Where did Shird turn for firearms? With a criminal record, he couldn’t legally purchase a firearm. No matter. The guns came to him and his crew.

Every few months, a burly man driving a nondescript sedan with North Carolina license plates would roll up to one of his Fulton Avenue or Mount Street corners. Not far from the Western District police station, in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray would be arrested a generation later, the North Carolina stranger would pop his trunk and display a cache of 12 to 15 semiautomatic handguns and ammunition. The man with the Southern drawl did a brisk business, accepting cash only from the highest bidders. The guys who moved the most heroin grabbed the prizes: 16-shot Glock automatics and if their bankroll was big enough, body armor.

“It was all still in their boxes,” says Shird, who later did 12 years for drug trafficking. “We had an endless supply of Berettas, Glocks, 9mm handguns manufactured by Smith & Wesson. It got so you could place orders. Tell him what you wanted. Look, guns have always been easy to get in Baltimore, but if there’s one thing people have to understand, it’s that kids in Baltimore aren’t born with guns in their hands. Guns aren’t manufactured here. There aren’t even any gun stores left in Baltimore City to buy one legally. [There’s one, owned by an ex-cop.] All these guns—the cheap, broken ones, the ones passed around with a body on them, the ones traded for drugs, the expensive ones sold on the black market—they all come from someplace else.”

SHIRD TURNS 50 NEXT YEAR. During the Obama Administration, he served on the committee for the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, as well as President Obama’s Clemency Project. He’s been a youth mentor, anti-gun violence advocate, and taught at Johns Hopkins University. He has published three books: a memoir, a well-received book about the ongoing civil rights struggle in this country, and one about the Baltimore Uprising. But the West Baltimore neighborhood where he’s from, and others in the city beset by gun violence, remain largely unchanged. The Baltimore Police Department has pulled upward of 100,000 guns off the streets in the past three decades, an endeavor that has made no discernable impact on the accessibility of firearms. “A finger in the dike,” says former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) special agent David Chipman, a Detroit native who earned his master’s degree in management from Johns Hopkins. It certainly hasn’t made any discernible impact on the epidemic level of gun violence, which has matched the record toll of Shird’s era over the past five years and taken nearly 10,000 lives in Baltimore since he was a scared 16-year-old kid. In fact, ask anyone close to the streets—a Safe Streets violence interrupter, a longtime Baltimore cop, a law enforcement official, an ex-offender—and they will tell you there are more handguns on the street, with higher capacity clips than ever before.

It raises a vexing question: How does Baltimore, in a state with some of the toughest handgun purchasing requirements in the country, manage to produce the highest gun homicide rate of any large city in the United States?

The short answer: Two-thirds of guns associated with crime in Baltimore come from out of state. And Maryland overall now has the highest rate of out-of-state crime gun “imports” in the country, according to a 2020 analysis of tracing data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Traffickers today bring nearly three times as many firearms into Maryland as the national state average, playing a deadly role in Baltimore’s epidemic of gun violence.

As Shird’s recounting of the North Carolina trafficker makes clear, out-of-state guns have always been illegally sold on the streets in Baltimore. But in the past, out-of-state firearms accounted for a minority of recovered crime guns in Maryland—38 percent, 20 years ago. What’s changed—the unfortunate consequence of the strict gun licensing legislation passed under former Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2013—is that out-of-state guns for the first time represent a majority, a solid 54 percent, of Maryland crime guns traced by the ATF. More than 1,000 crime guns recovered in 2019 traced back to Virginia alone. Another 2,500-plus came from other jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Georgia, West Virginia, and even as far away as Texas (see map).

“We know from the data these guns mostly flow up the I-95 corridor—‘the Iron Pipeline’—because southern states have fewer restrictions on gun buying,” says former ATF chief of crime gun analysis Joseph Vince, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Mount St. Mary’s University. “Take any city that only deals with ‘bad guys with guns’ and spends 98 percent of their time on street arrests—there will always be more guns, and inevitably more ‘bad guys with guns,’ because so many young guys are in the drug trade. It doesn’t mean you don’t arrest everyone illegally possessing a firearm. You do. It means working both ends of the equation. Otherwise, the guns keep coming. This should not come as a surprise to anyone in law enforcement, but it often does.”

GUN TRAFFICKING PATTERNS remain remarkably consistent year to year and state to state. Just as the biggest exporter of crime guns into Baltimore is Virginia, which has less restrictive gun laws than Maryland, the lion’s share of the out-of-state guns recovered in Chicago originate in Indiana, where it’s easier to buy a firearm than Illinois. Similarly, in Los Angeles, hundreds of guns each year trace their point-of-sale back to Arizona, where it’s much easier to purchase a handgun than California.

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