The Metropolitan Police Department yesterday moved cautiously into its program to ask to search homes in the District for illegal guns while civil rights activists knocked on doors and used bullhorns to keep residents from participating.
"We shouldn't make the next casualty of street violence cherished civil rights," said Johnny Barnes, director of American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area. "We're very uncomfortable with police randomly banging on doors without probable cause asking for access."
The department initiated its program by distributing literature at police stations and Boys and Girls Clubs to gauge public interest. It plans to begin the searches in two weeks.
Police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the Safe Home program attempts to reach parents or guardians who think or know their children have guns and will offer amnesty for certain gun- and drug-possession charges.
Although amnesty was assured, ACLU workers held a press conference and went door to door in the Washington Highlands in Southeast, the first neighborhood to be targeted under the program. The department also has scheduled searches in Eckington in Northeast and Columbia Heights in Northwest.
The ACLU workers distributed window signs that read: "To the Police: NO CONSENT TO SEARCH OUR HOME," and gave residents questionnaires for the officers to sign that ask whether social services or immigration authorities would be notified about what is found inside homes.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry said the plan violates the Fourth Amendment, which bars illegal search and seizure. He also said it infringes on parental responsibility.
"If there's a parent who has a son who has a gun in the home and they know what to do, [then] they can call the police," said Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat. "It's not that hard."
Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said he needed more information before taking a position on the searches, but would be "very surprised" if his constituents consented to them.
"If they were to knock on my door, I'd be puzzled," said Mr. Graham, who dealt with several shootings last year in his ward, which includes Columbia Heights. "It seems very unusual."
The ACLU and Mr. Barry also have said they are concerned about the department's pledge of amnesty because it has acknowledged that guns will be tested for links to other crimes and a positive identification could lead to an investigation or prosecution of the gun owner.
Miss Hughes said the goal of the initiative is to seize guns and not to catch criminals. She said drugs found in homes will be seized, but residents will not be prosecuted. She said officers also would not report certain other issues such as housing violations.
"We want to make sure that residents are comfortable," she said. "If they don't want us to be there, we won't be there."