Guns Over Gangs 

Some local law-enforcement officials pull support for full crime package.

Over Memorial Day weekend, six people were murdered in unrelated homicides, making it one of the city's bloodiest weekends of the year.

All of the victims were killed by gunshots, but as far as police know, none of the homicides were gang-related, a fact that supports a new push by local law enforcement.

As part of an $80 million crime package proposed earlier this year, three separate bills are currently before the state legislature: The "Crooks with Guns" bill would increase penalties for felons found with firearms in their possession. The so-called Street Terrorism bill would mean stricter punishments for crimes committed by three or more people. The third bill would provide funding for more prosecutors in district-attorney offices statewide. But Governor Phil Bredesen's proposed $15 million crime package includes a watered-downed version of the Crooks with Guns bill.

Memphis police director Larry Godwin and Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell are among members of state law enforcement groups who sent a letter to the governor last week asking that funding for Crooks with Guns get priority over the Street Terrorism bill.

Their decision reflects a surprising local statistic. Of the 65 homicides committed in Memphis by press time, 55 involved the use of guns. But none of those homicides are verified as having been committed by gang members, based on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's rules for identifying gang involvement.

"Although we do have a few robberies committed by three or more people, it becomes difficult to prove that all three were working in concert. You may have one guy sitting outside, and he'll say, I didn't know they were going to rob the place," says MPD spokesperson Vince Higgins. "So it's more appropriate for us to approach this from the standpoint that we need to fund Crooks with Guns."

The Crooks with Guns bill increases penalties for convicted felons found in possession of firearms by requiring mandatory sentencing with no jail-time reductions. The Street Terrorism bill would make crimes committed by three people a higher classification of felony.

"We feel that Crooks with Guns will take care of a lot of those gang problems as well," says Maggie McLean-Duncan, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. "A lot of the individuals who we'd be convicting with the Street Terrorism bill are carrying guns."

Bredesen has criticized the proposed Crooks with Guns package, saying harsher punishments don't necessarily deter crime. "I have a $500 million crime bill this year. It's actually called an education bill," he says. "But it's focused on trying to prevent these things from happening in the future by getting kids on the right track."

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