Federal Firearms Prosecutions Rose 34% Between 2000-2016: Report

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Gun seized during federal-state -city anti-gang operartion, Omaha, 2016. Photo courtesy U.S. Marshals Service via Fl.ickr

The number of individuals prosecuted for federal firearms offenses increased by 34 percent between 2000 and 2016, but the length of the average prison sentence declined over the same period, according to the Urban Institute.

The Urban Institute study, released under the auspices of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that the increase in investigations, prosecutions and convictions was largely driven by firearms possession offenses.

Between 2000 and 2016, federal investigations for possession offenses increased 67 percent, and convictions rose by 72 percent, the study noted.

States and localities take the lead in addressing violent crime, including gun crime, but the figures are a reflection of the key role played by the federal government in curbing illegal firearms.

“Most defendants in federal firearms cases are charged pursuant to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulates interstate and foreign firearms commerce and prohibits certain persons, such as those with felony convictions, from possessing a firearm,” the study said.

”Federal prosecution is sometimes considered more advantageous than state prosecution because it carries more certain and punitive penalties. Moreover, targeted federal prosecutions through federal, state, and local task forces like Project Safe Neighborhoods can be a key component of crime-reduction strategies.”

Significantly, the share of federal firearms offense investigations handled by state and local authorities or task forces tripled from 3 percent in 2000 to 9 percent in 2016, researchers found.

According  to the study, the number of individuals referred to US attorneys for federal firearms offenses rose from 7,770 in 2000 to 10,384 in 2016―after peaking at 14,322 in 2004.

The report did not speculate on the reasons for the 2004 surge and its subsequent decline.

Federal gun laws regulate receipt and possession of firearms as well as their manufacture, importation, distribution, and transfer. Federal law also penalizes the criminal use of firearms.

Most of the defendants prosecuted under federal statutes were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm.

Average prison sentences for firearms-related convictions during the study period decreased 17 percent (from 90 months to 74 months)—researchers found.

Nevertheless, defendants convicted of firearms-related  possession offenses had a longer average sentence (76 months) than defendants convicted of firearms transfer, regulatory, and “other” offenses (less than 60 months).

The study was conducted by Emily Tiry, Kelly Roberts Freeman and William Adams—all of the Urban Institute.

The complete report and tables can be downloaded here.

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