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May 7, 2018

Reviewing the feds increased pursuit of ever more federal gun cases

The New York Times had this front-page piece about an increase in federal gun prosecutions under the headline "In Fight Against Violent Crime, Justice Dept. Targets Low-Level Gun Offenders." Here are excerpts:

Urged by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to punish offenders as harshly and as quickly as possible, federal prosecutors have increasingly pursued low-level gun possession cases, according to law enforcement officials and an examination of court records and federal crime statistics....  Mr. Sessions is putting into action his own long-held views on criminal justice, forged as a United States attorney in Alabama during the drug war. They reflect a philosophy popular among conservatives and long backed by the gun lobby: that the effective enforcement of existing laws can reduce crime without resorting to the passage of additional legislation.

“I believe very strongly in enforcing gun laws,” Mr. Sessions said in an interview with the far-right Breitbart News this year. “I believe there’s no value in having them on the books if they’re not prosecuted.”

Mr. Sessions’s approach has touched off a debate about whether he is making the country safer from violent crime, as he and President Trump have repeatedly vowed to do, or devoting resources to low-level prosecutions that could instead be put toward pursuing bigger targets like gun suppliers.

“It’s a good idea to enforce the existing gun laws,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of The Brady Campaign, a nonprofit coalition that works to combat gun violence. “That’s something prosecutors should do. But going only after the people who are purchasing the guns illegally is only part of the story.”

Local police, who have for years sought more muscle from federal law enforcement, welcomed Mr. Sessions’s more aggressive approach. “We have been trying to send a message,” said J. Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police departments across the country. “The bad guys have a real fear of federal prosecutions versus state prosecutions.”

Penalties for federal gun convictions are steep.  On average, firearms defendants spend six years in federal prison. If they are convicted under the two statutes requiring mandatory minimum sentences, that average jumps to 11 years.

In the three months following a directive from Mr. Sessions last year to pursue gun crimes, possession cases — a relatively routine charge — rose nearly a quarter.  That was part of a 15 percent increase in all federal gun prosecutions in the first nine months of 2017.  Three out of every four federal gun charges filed in the 12 months starting in October 2016 were under a statute forbidding felons from owning or transporting a gun, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database, which monitors gun crime statistics.  The period encompasses both the end of the Obama administration and the first several months of Mr. Sessions’s term.

Three law enforcement officials described a newfound interest among prosecutors in taking on smaller gun cases — referred to in law enforcement parlance as one-man, one-gun cases for their narrow impact.  Such cases had long been left to state and local prosecutors, freeing Justice Department officials to focus on broader investigations of interstate gun trafficking and criminal networks....

Supporters of Mr. Sessions’s initiatives acknowledge the politics of his approach and remain wary it could be used to sap energy from further legislative or regulatory efforts to combat gun violence, like regulating assault weapons or increasing background check requirements. “We certainly are hoping for some additional legislative fixes by Congress,” Mr. Manger said.

It is difficult to judge the impact of Mr. Sessions’s initiatives.  Many offenders charged with federal gun laws in 2017 are just now going to trial or being sentenced, and some of the cases could still be moved out of the federal system.  Federal firearm prosecutions have historically ebbed and flowed, often spiking in the years following significant court decisions or large-scale mass shootings.  After steadily dropping since 2004, prosecutions began increasing again in 2015, according to the TRAC database.

People convicted of firearms-related crimes make up more than 17 percent of the federal prison population, the second-biggest group after drug offenses, Justice Department data showed. Ninety-six percent of defendants convicted of a federal firearms offense in 2017 were sentenced to prison....

Amid surging public pressure following the mass shooting at a Florida high school in February, Mr. Trump directed Mr. Sessions to more strictly enforce existing gun laws.  Survivors of that shooting have pushed Mr. Trump to ban assault weapons and raise the legal purchasing age for firearms.  Instead, prodded by Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions pushed federal prosecutors to more strictly enforce background check violations and ban bump stocks, a device that can help semiautomatic weapons fire like machine guns.  Bump stocks were used in the Las Vegas massacre in October.

Mr. Sessions explained his rationale at a speech following the Florida shooting. “It’s not good,” he said, “if we’ve got gun laws that say criminals can’t carry guns and they never get enforced.”

May 7, 2018 at 09:55 PM | Permalink

Comments

Isn't it interesting that they never prosecute the pawn shops that sell to straw purchasers and then get reward/tip money from ATF for turning in their own customers. If you go after federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) who are bad actors, you would cut down on a lot of guns on the street.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 8, 2018 11:09:46 AM

Couple things here - there have been federal cases in which pawn shops/FFL's have been prosecuted, but it's one of those cases where someone goes in a says to the clerk, I can't pass a background check, but my friend here can, can she buy the gun for me. And, then of course he clerk sells to the friend, and the clerk knows full well the gun is going to the other person - that's illegal. The FFL's can sell more than one gun to one person so long as the person buying the firearm fills out the Form 4473 truthfully. If they lie on the form, that's on the defendant, not the clerk that sold them the gun. I believe the clerk's have to report to the ATF when a person buys more than 2 handguns over a 5 day period as well.

Posted by: atomicfrog | May 8, 2018 3:15:03 PM

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