Sessions Oversells Federal Gun Prosecutions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to steer more gun-crime cases to federal court,. The St. Louis U.S. Attorney’s office has done that but the city’s rates of homicides and serious crimes remain among the nation’s worst.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to steer more gun-crime cases to federal court, where offenders face an average of six years in prison, compared with the lighter punishments that can result from state convictions. In Missouri, gun offenders charged under state laws generally get probation. Sessions instructed U.S. attorneys to step up their gun-case loads. In the second quarter of this year, federal firearms prosecutions jumped 23 percent over the same period in 2016, The Trace and Politico Magazine report. In a St. Louis speech, Sessions praised the local U.S. attorney for an aggressive pursuit of gun-law violators, saying, “The more of them we put in jail, the fewer murders we will have.”

Sessions is dramatically overselling the effectiveness of his prosecution-heavy policy, those who study gun violence say. Researchers say the long prison sentences and elevated incarceration rates that result from increasing federal prosecutions have scant influence on violent crime rates. No other city has tried harder to do what Sessions wants than St. Louis. Since the 1990s, the Eastern District of Missouri has been in the top 10 federal court districts for gun prosecution rates, says Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The St. Louis office has increased its intake of gun cases, leading the nation in 2016. At the same time, the city’s rates of homicide and serious crimes are the nation’s worst and have been stuck at or near the top of the list for 20 years. The city had 188 homicides in each of the past two years—a two-decade high. Nonfatal shootings were up 22 percent. What is a more effective role for federal authorities in reducing violent crime? It starts with recognizing that no two cities’ crime problems are alike. The next step is to create a menu of interventions tailored to meet local needs—and support them with reliable funding. “At the end of the day, you need a balanced, evidence-informed strategy that is not just about a program or two,” says Thomas Abt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s about how multiple programs interact to produce a cumulative effect.”