Federal Gun Prosecutions Spike Under Jeff Sessions

New attorney general continues reversal after Holder's years-long decline in firearms cases

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 22 Sep 2017 at 6:54 AM

Federal firearms prosecutions have increased 12.5 percent since Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office, continuing a rebound that began under former Attorney General Loretta Lynch after a sharp decline under Eric Holder.

Sessions boasted about the reversal during a speech last month to the Fraternal Order of Police.

“The Department has convicted more than 1,200 members of gangs, cartels, and their subsidiaries, since the beginning of the year,” he said at the gathering.

Data gathered by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse indicate that federal prosecutors launched 609 new gun cases in August, up from 594 in August 2016.

Prosecutors initiated more new gun cases every single month since February compared with the corresponding month from last year. The cumulative total is 4,279, up from 3,803.

Lawrence Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, said rank-and-file prosecutors have received no specific instructions to goose gun prosecutions. He said prosecutors simply have orders to file the most significant charge that can be proven. That is a reversal from instructions first handed down by Holder to be more lenient in certain instances.

"I think it's happening naturally," he said. "Nobody's ever told us to prosecute more cases. What the attorney general's done is asked us to go back to the practice that began in the 1980s."

Under Holder, Obama's first attorney general, gun prosecutions declined. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, federal authorities prosecuted 9,068 defendants on firearms and explosives charges in 2008 — the year before Obama and Holder took office. That plummeted 17 percent, to 7,515 in 2014, Holder's last full year in office.

The number rose in 2015 and 2016, after Lynch succeeded Holder.

Gun Prosecutions Rise
New guns cases in federal court
Month20162017
February584639
March741776
April608689
May659781
June619640
July582609
August594784
Total3 8034 279
Source: Syracuse University TRAC

Law enforcement experts said higher gun prosecutions signal an approach to gun violence that would be unremarkable if not for the radical shift that took place under Barack Obama's administration.

"I don't think the current phenomenon of increased gun prosecutions is anything but a restoration of seriousness, well-ordered seriousness of firearms offenses that existed prior to the Obama administration," said William Otis, Georgetown Law Center adjunct professor.

Targeting criminals who use guns is much more likely to result in less gun violence than Obama's advocacy of tighter regulations on lawful gun owners, said Otis, who contributes to the Crime & Punishment blog.

Otis said he found it odd that Obama's Justice Department showed such comparatively little interest in prosecuting gun crimes given his purported concern about gun violence.

"He couldn't go 48 hours in a row without talking about gun violence," he said.

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said declining gun prosecutions reflected the fact that the Obama administration was far more interested in pursuing white-collar criminals than violent offenders.

"Both gun and drug prosecutions plummeted because Obama and Eric Holder had embraced the false narrative raised around mass incarceration," she said.

Mac Donald noted that despite spiraling gun violence in Chicago, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus has defeated repeated efforts to increase penalties for gun crimes.

"There is pushback to the idea of locking away violent felons who are using or carrying illegal guns simply because of the race argument," she said.

Mac Donald said it is unclear how much of an impact increased prosecutions at the federal level can have on overall crime. Even an aggressive Justice Department will make up only a small fraction of all criminal cases, and the threat of punishment goes only so far with criminals whose thinking tends to be short-term, she said.

"Overwhelmingly, policing and prosecution is a local matter, and the federal government is really not the major player there," she said. "But I do know that many local police chiefs have viewed local and federal task forces that have tried to leverage federal sentencing power against gun-drug criminals as a very, very useful tool to get repeat offenders off the street."

Mac Donald has spoken publicity about how stiff and swift punishment can make an impact.

"There may be some deterrent effect of knowing that now we've got an active federal attorney here, and we could be doing very serious time with an illegal gun," she said.

Some gun rights activists expressed concern about setting a precedent with firearms prosecutions that could be exploited and abused — if not by Sessions, by future administrations.

"We have that quaint notion that these types of crimes should be handled at the state level," said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. "If these are bad guys, there's no reason the state can't prosecute them. They certainly have the authority."

(photo credit, homepage and article images of Sessions: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

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