By Christopher Zoukis
A total of 2,637 defendants were charged this with unlawful possession of a firearm, compared to 2,149 last year, and there was a 10 percent rise in cases charging a defendant with possessing a gun while committing a violent crime or dealing drugs.
If this rate continues for the remainder of this year, DOJ will wind up bringing federal gun charges against 12,626 defendants—the highest number of charges issued since a dozen years ago.
DOJ attributes the increase to its nationwide crackdown on gun crimes, announced in March by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to bring the most serious charges for which criminals could be convicted, and to seek the most severe possible penalties.
The order reinstated a former policy which the Obama administration had opposed. In mid-May, DOJ issued a memorandum to all DOJ prosecutors spelling out the agency’s stricter new charging and sentencing guidelines. The policy drew some opposition from Democratic and some libertarian-leaning Republican legislators who have backed criminal law reform proposals aimed at reducing the numbers of people incarcerated, through such steps as decriminalizing some drug offenses or reducing mandatory minimum penalties.
A February executive order from President Trump identified gun crimes as one of three priority areas – along with gang violence and drug trafficking – to be targeted in a nationwide law enforcement effort. That order directed DOJ to take the lead in mounting the initiative. In response, DOJ unveiled another program in June, the National Public Safety Partnership (PSP).
In some ways a follow-on to the Violence Reduction Network, started in 2014 as a forum for sharing DOJ expertise and technical resources with state and local law enforcers, PSP offers state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies added federal assistance targeted at gang and violent gun crime. Thus far, only 12 cities have joined the partnership—one each in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Texas, and two each in Ohio and Tennessee— but DOJ says it anticipates more to join before the end of this year.
Another step the new administration has taken to address high levels of gun violence came in late June, when 20 additional agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to aid Chicago police and Illinois state police investigating firearms trafficking there.
The cooperative effort, known as the Chicago Crime Gun Strike Force, will use improved ballistics technology and quick-response tactics to investigate and prosecute gun traffickers and shooters. The task force will speed up processing of shell casings and other forensic evidence, and aims to prosecute as many cases as possible in federal court, due to the greater penalties available under federal charges than for firearms offenses under state law.
In the first half of this year, Chicago recorded 1,737 shootings and about 320 deaths, roughly keeping pace with last year’s 760 murders, the highest total for the city in 20 years.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.