Attorney General Jeff Sessions presses for more gun charges. Firearms defendants, who make up 17 percent of the federal prison population, average six years behind bars.
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, the New York Times reports. Is Sessions making the nation safer from violent crime or devoting resources to 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 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.” J. Thomas Manger of the Major Cities Chiefs Association says, “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 two statutes requiring mandatory minimum sentences, that average jumps to 11 years. In the three months after a directive from 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. Few law enforcement officials want to make a priority of prosecuting low-level offenders. Some fear that the pressure from Sessions will lead prosecutors to prioritize conviction totals over their impact on crime. After steadily dropping since 2004, federal firearm prosecutions started increasing again in 2015. People convicted of firearms-related crimes make up more than 17 percent of the federal prison population, the second-biggest group after drug offenses.