A year ago, a man stood outside of an Alabama church begging police to kill him. His wife said he had been suicidal and had held a gun to his head earlier so she had hidden the gun in the church. The police arrested the unarmed man and retrieved the gun.
He hadn’t been a danger to anyone but himself, and his lawyer says what he needed was counseling and treatment. Instead he was federally prosecuted. You see, he had been convicted of robbery at age 15 and was permanently prohibited from possessing a gun. He was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm and is now serving three years in federal prison.
Is incarceration the best way to handle a situation like this? Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to believe it is.
“I believe very strongly in enforcing gun laws,” Mr. Sessions said earlier this year. “I believe there’s no value in having them on the books if they’re not prosecuted.”
It’s not just words, either. Last year, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to focus their resources on gun crimes. In the three months following that directive, federal prosecutions for unlawful possession jumped by nearly a quarter. In the first nine months of 2017, federal gun prosecutions were up 15 percent.
In the past, offenses involving a single person and a single gun — typically unlawful possession cases involving felons — were left to state and local prosecutors. Now, people convicted of firearms offenses constitute over 17 percent of federal prisoners. That’s the second-largest group after drug offenders.
Leaving low-level offenders to states allows federal law enforcement to go after interstate criminal networks and gun trafficking.
Many law enforcement officials would rather focus on more serious crimes. Doing that, they argue, does more to bring down the violent crime rate. Many criminal justice experts agree.
“Enforcement isn’t always the solution to those different types of crimes,” said a spokesperson for the Brennan Center for Justice. “The result might be to increase the federal prison population without a correlating reduction in crime.”
Whether Sessions’ directive will drive down the violent crime rate is unclear. The low-level offenders targeted for federal prosecution in 2017 are only now being tried and sentenced.
After the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida, there is significant public pressure to strictly enforce gun laws in an effort to reduce the violence. Do you think focusing on unlawful possession of firearms by felons is the most effective use of federal resources?