CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Though Donald Trump ran on a pro-gun, Second Amendment platform, a recent study from Syracuse University shows the administration has stepped up prosecutions of weapons offenses, bringing 8,403 such cases in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2018, a 22.5 percent increase from the previous year.
TRAC Reports, a data-gathering organization at Syracuse University, also reported last week that that nation’s 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices have prosecuted 41.3 percent more weapons cases than they did 5 years ago, under the Obama Administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the National District Attorneys Association in July 2017: “I want to see a substantial increase in gun crime prosecutions. I believe, as we partner together and hammer criminals who carry firearms during crimes or criminals that possess firearms after being convicted of a felony, the effect will be to reduce violent crime.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms handles the lion’s share of prosecutions, the TRAC study said: 64 percent of the prosecutions were recommended by BATF.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri, which includes St. Louis, has prosecuted the most weapons offenses this fiscal year, according to TRAC: more than 500 of them. Ranking second and third in weapons prosecutions, respectively, were U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the Western District of Tennessee, which includes Memphis, and in the Southern District of Louisiana, which includes New Orleans.
Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, told Courthouse News that Tennessee has one of the highest rates of violent crime of all the states. Jackson and Memphis have the highest rates of violent crime in the Volunteer State.
Dunavant said his office seeks maximum sentences on firearms offenses because guns are a common denominator in many violent crimes, including murder, drug trafficking and aggravated assault.
“As part of our violence reduction strategy, we want to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and take violent offenders off our streets before they commit the next shooting with an illegally obtained or possessed firearm,” Dunavant said in an email.
In this first six months of this calendar year, Dunavant’s office said, Memphis and unincorporated parts of Shelby County reported 2,405 gun crimes. Though that represents more than one gun crime every two hours around the clock, it’s a 15.3 percent decrease from the same period in 2017, when 2,840 such crimes were reported.
“These sustained decreases in reported gun crimes and all major violent crime categories are encouraging, and shows that our return to proven enforcement policies is working,” Dunavant wrote. “Putting the right people in prison upholds the rule of law, deters criminal conduct with a strong message of significant consequences, and makes us all safer.”
Sessions said in speeches this year that criminals who violate weapons law are likely to be career criminals.
“In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly seven out of 10 career criminals reoffended after being released,” Sessions said in Macon, Georgia in August this year. “Federal firearms offenders were found to be the most likely to be rearrested of any category. These criminals are both. They are career criminals and firearms offenders.”
In addition to prosecuting people who use guns during crimes, Sessions said prosecutors also are targeting people who are prohibited from owning firearms, such as felons, and guns that are illegal in themselves, such as those with serial numbers scratched off.
Candidate Trump posted on his campaign website that the Second Amendment “doesn’t create that right [to own guns] — it ensures that the government can’t take it away.” But he also promised to crack down on violent crime committed by drug dealers and gangs by enforcing federal gun laws.
However, David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, said the focus on prosecuting federal firearms offenses to too simplistic, because U.S. Attorney’s Offices do too little on their own to deter crime. Most gun crimes are first handled by state and federal law enforcement, Kennedy said, and federal attorneys prosecute the cases they choose to adopt, which is a fraction of the larger pool of gun-related offenses.
“What goes to federal and what doesn’t is effectively completely unpredictable on the street,” Kennedy told Courthouse News. “So if you’re somebody walking around in the community and you’re thinking whether or not to carry a gun or whether to commit a gun crime, you may not even know that the federal policy has changed. If you’re not aware that the U.S. attorney is taking more of these cases, it’s not going to affect your behavior.”
By the time charges are leveled and the accused is standing in a federal courtroom, it’s too late for them to change their behavior, Kennedy said.
He said one unintended consequence of focusing on firearm prosecutions is that young, urban black men are overwhelmingly targeted by prosecutors, which makes the communities in which they live more distrustful of police and law enforcement.
Instead of focusing on gun prosecution, Kennedy said, it would be more effective if law enforcement seeks to identify the people most likely to commit violent crime and engage in outreach.
He cited Oakland, California’s Operation Ceasefire, which identified the less-than 1 percent of Oakland residents who were associated with two-thirds of the city’s gun violence and provided them with coaching, social services, jobs and other assistance.
According to a study published Aug. 22 and conducted by Northeastern and Rutgers University, shootings in Oakland decreased by 52 percent between 2011 and 2017.