Sniper tips to aid hunt for firearms
By Arlo Wagner and Matthew Cella
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Montgomery County police said yesterday that they will use tens of thousands of tips from the October sniper hunt to track down those who violate Maryland gun laws.
"Our goal is to reduce illegal firearm possessions and violent crimes," said Capt. Nancy Demme, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police Department. She also said the intensive crackdown would begin in the county in a few weeks.
The mission will be carried out by a task force of county and state police officers, as well as federal agents of the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Police authorities said many of the nearly 100,000 tips and the names of tipsters and offenders were set aside during the sniper investigation because it was clear they did not pertain to the shooter or shooters, who were using a rifle.
"If, for instance, someone called to say, 'The guy next door has a couple handguns,' that did not apply," explained Michael Bouchard, special agent in charge of the ATF office in Baltimore.
Though police say the tips could help solve cases and get illegal guns off the street, gun groups are uneasy about such a task force using information often submitted by neighbors.
"I just plain don't like it," said Robert Culver, co-chairman of Montgomery Citizens for a Safer Maryland, a Montgomery County-based gun-advocacy group.
Mr. Culver said the task force could go overboard while investigating gun owners, relying on "rumors" or fraudulent or misguided tips.
The sniper hunt ended Oct. 25 at an Interstate 70 rest stop near Myersville, Md., with the arrest of John Allen Muhammad, 42, and John Lee Malvo, 17. They are in Virginia jails awaiting capital-offense trials.
Six of the 10 sniper slayings occurred in Montgomery County. The first took place Oct. 2, with four more occurring in the county the next day, causing thousands of Maryland, Washington and Virginia residents to call a special tip-line telephone number with information about suspects and dubious circumstances.
"We are still getting a lot of tips as a result," Mr. Bouchard said, and those tips are being examined for possible violations of Maryland and D.C. gun laws.
Though the task force will focus on handgun owners convicted of violent felonies, Mr. Bouchard acknowledged that some tips already have led to persons who had no idea they owned guns illegally.
"We are not looking to take away any guns or ammunition that are legally possessed," he said.
Still, advocacy groups remain concerned.
A Web site for Maryland gun owners, www.direct-action.org
, stated in an October article that the sniper shootings could lead to a "wanton politicizing of a crisis, leading to apparently unconstrained police activity."
The site offered advice to gun owners interviewed by authorities based on tips.
Gun advocates portray the crackdown as evidence of continuing hostility toward gun owners by county officials.
In 2001, the county failed in an attempt to ban gun shows at the Montgomery County Agricultural Center in Gaithersburg. When Silverado Promotions, the show's promoter, challenged the ban, a federal judge ruled that the Montgomery County Council broke the law when it tried to withhold county money to support the event.
The ruling is being appealed. In the interim, Silverado Promotions is holding a gun show at the Gaithersburg agricultural center this weekend.
Other jurisdictions are also following on tips received during the sniper shootings.
"We have detectives working on tips but we do not have a special task force," Fairfax County Police spokeswoman Cheryl Farrell said.
Prince George's County police are responding similarly. Capt. Andy Ellis, a department spokesman, said investigators are checking tips that might help solve other crimes or reveal new crimes.
Still, Virginia police officials in the commonwealth will work much differently on this issue compared with Montgomery or Prince George's counties because Maryland gun laws are "far more restrictive," said John Ritter, an Arlington County police detective.