More than a year after the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Obama’s directive to amp up prosecutions of federal gun laws hasn’t made much difference in how many people are charged with gun crimes.
U.S. attorneys that prosecute such cases charged 11,674 people with breaking federal gun laws in the fiscal year that ended in September, compared to 11,728 people the year before.
“The federal gun charge numbers are not an accurate reflection of the Department's efforts to investigate and prosecute gun violence,” said Allison Price, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, in a statement. “The fact that we may not prosecute a gun case in federal court does not mean the case is not prosecuted at all.”
Many gun cases are handled at the state and local level, she added. "Our priorities are to keep our kids safe, help prevent mass shootings, and reduce the epidemic of gun violence in this country,” Price said.
Obama’s directive was one of 23 executive actions on gun violence he released last January, a month after the mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children dead. The president’s legislative efforts to limit ammunition magazine sizes and expand background checks to cover more gun sales died in the Senate a few months later.
The Justice Department says it has taken other steps to increase firearms enforcement, including forming a task force that advises federal prosecutors on how to reduce gun violence, and creating a database to allow law enforcement to trace weapons across jurisdictions.
But the figures show how ineffectual the president’s executive action was, at least in the short term, in ginning up prosecutions. Without new legislation or increased resources, U.S. attorneys are unlikely to prosecute more gun crimes, experts say.
The National Rifle Association and some Republican lawmakers have argued that the Justice Department does not adequately enforce gun laws that are already on the books. Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly Obama’s chief of staff, said in October that the feds have done a “horrible” job of prosecuting gun crimes in Chicago .
Obama’s directive to the Justice Department to “maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime” was supposed to be an answer to those critics.
“It’s been deplorable and woeful, the lack of prosecutions for criminals who break gun laws,” Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, told Yahoo News.
The powerful gun group helped defeat a bill to expand background checks in April in part by arguing that the Obama administration rarely prosecutes people who claim they are eligible to buy a weapon and then are found by the National Instant Crime Background Check System (NICS) to be felons or otherwise disqualified. In 2010, the Feds prosecuted only 44 people who tried to illegally purchase a weapon — less than 1 percent of all people who failed their background checks. The department has instead focused on prosecuting people who violate more serious federal gun laws.
The Justice Department would not say whether that number has increased since 2010. The department has focused on “complex multi-defendant cases” since 2008, Price said.
Over 10 years, NICS checked 100 million gun purchases, and declined people 700,000 times for being felons or having another disqualifying factor on their records. Increasing prosecutions of those people is a rare patch of common ground between the NRA and gun control groups.
“It’s a complicated problem, and frankly, we’re the ones who first raised it,” said Mark Glaze, the president of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control group backed by Michael Bloomberg. “Out of tens of thousands of people, only a relative handful are prosecuted.”
Glaze said many of these cases are difficult to prosecute because U.S. attorneys already are overworked, and using them to charge people with a “paperwork violation” can seem wasteful. Glaze wants 50 U.S. attorneys added to prosecute people who didn’t pass background checks but still tried to buy guns.
The organization also has suggested that the Justice Department conduct a study of a random sample of the 700,000 illegal sales that were declined to try to figure out if any factors predict which buyers commit crimes in the future. That way, U.S. attorneys could focus on prosecuting cases that showed those risk factors.
But others have argued that prosecuting people for failing their background checks is a waste of time in a legal landscape littered with gun traffickers and other more serious offenders. Some buyers are declined because they didn’t realize something on their record disqualified them from purchasing a weapon.
“The reason the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] doesn’t make it a high priority to target people who attempt to buy a gun from the gun dealer is they spend the majority of their time targeting violent offenders who use guns illegally,” said Mike Bouchard, the former assistant director for field operations of the ATF. “By taking that person and arresting them, it has little to no impact on violent crime.”
This prioritization of serious offenses predates Obama: The Justice Department under President George W. Bush also prosecuted well under 1 percent of people who attempted to buy a weapon and were declined.