In the clamor to tighten gun restrictions following the horrific massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week, one important fact has been overlooked. Gun laws are only as good as their implementation. Before we talk about new gun laws, perhaps it’s time we started to enforce the ones we’ve already passed.
A remarkable drop in gun crime prosecutions and convictions marked President Obama’s eight years in office. Mother Jones reported that “under Obama, federal weapons prosecutions have declined to their lowest levels in nearly a decade,” citing a 2013 report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Remember, it was during this same period that Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department deliberately and willingly sold drug cartels nearly 2,000 guns under Operation Fast and Furious.
In Chicago, the U.S. attorney filed only one gun prosecution for every 25 cases of gun violence, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. The report found similar disparities in other major American cities, including St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit and Houston.
Prosecutors have told me gun laws are difficult cases to prosecute, without much jury appeal. Consequently, there aren’t many prosecutions. In 2015, only 6,000 convictions were won nationwide – a 15 percent drop from five years earlier.
Although anyone failing a background check to purchase a weapon can technically be prosecuted, they seldom are. During my service in Congress as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, I asked the Justice Department to provide specific numbers of gun prosecutions. I got delays, questions, and ultimately convoluted answers about how many gun crimes the department actually prosecuted.
To be fair, the Trump administration has made an effort to turn those numbers around. The Justice Department announced last July that gun prosecutions were up 23 percent in the second quarter of 2017 from the same quarter a year earlier. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on record saying he will step up gun prosecutions in the wake of the Florida shooting.
Nevertheless, the bigger problem at the Florida high school and in other recent shootings was not insufficient gun restrictions, but insufficient law enforcement.
How is it that local law enforcement gets called to the accused shooter’s home 39 times, but this person is able to pass a background check? How is it that the FBI is unable to find someone who uses his real name when making threats to shoot up a school? Or that the FBI fails to follow a specific and credible tip just weeks before the massacre?
Clearly, the FBI blew it. But let’s pretend FBI officials did pass information about the accused shooter on to local law enforcement. Let’s pretend they actually reported his behavior. Let’s even pretend he failed the background check. What would have happened then? Most likely nothing. Because we rarely prosecute people who fail background checks.
We don’t even bother to prosecute people who bring guns to airports. In 2017, 3,957 guns were confiscated at airports. Consider that in late 2017 Homeland Security Department investigators found they were able to get weapons past the Transportation Security Administration 70 percent of the time – an improvement from two years earlier when testing found a 95 percent failure rate.
From Feb. 5 to 11, a record-breaking 104 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags at airports. Of those, 87 were loaded and 38 had a round chambered. How many people will get prosecuted? The number will be close to zero. In the vast majority of cases, the person will simply have the gun confiscated and possibly be charged a fine.
Post 9/11 there’s a reason we have 60,000 TSA agents. We spend billions of dollars to keep travelers safe. And would-be perpetrators almost never get prosecuted.
We have to take gun crimes more seriously. As a member of Congress, I had a series of death threats made against me. Only in one case was somebody actually arrested and prosecuted.
In the other cases, a local law enforcement officer may or may not have visited the perpetrator. But no one was arrested or prosecuted, despite the fact that we had two members of Congress shot during the time I served – Democrat Gabby Giffords of Arizona and Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
The Justice Department can play a big role in keeping us safer. Since my departure from Congress, I know Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., have communicated with Attorney General Sessions to encourage the Justice Department to prosecute more gun crimes.
The public should demand that gun crimes be taken more seriously. All the laws and restrictions in the world are meaningless if we refuse to enforce them.