Federal Weapons Prosecutions Rise for Third Consecutive Year
The latest case-by-case records from the Justice Department covering all of FY 2017 indicate that federal criminal prosecutions for weapons offenses grew by 10.8 percent over the levels seen during FY 2016. This is the third year in a row to see an increase in federal weapons prosecutions. Prosecutions during FY 2016 had risen a comparable rate - with 11.5 percent more than in FY 2015.
This follows the March 8, 2017 memorandum that Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent Department of Justice prosecutors directing them to "partner with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement to specifically identify the criminals responsible for significant violent crime in their districts" and singled out statutes penalizing firearms offenses as among the "substantial tools at their disposal."
This marks a return to the levels of weapons prosecutions last seen ten years ago in FY 2007, but it is still far below the peak level of federal weapons prosecutions reached in 2004. Indeed there has been distinctive rises and falls in gun prosecutions over the past three decades. See Figure 1. This is evident whether numbers are based on the lead charge, those classified as "weapons" prosecutions under the Department or Justice program "weapons" area, or by trends in prosecutions referred by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that has been assigned the lead role in enforcing federal gun laws. Detailed numbers are shown in Table 1 at the end of this report.
However, it is important to keep in mind that most gun prosecutions occur at the state and local level, and federal prosecutions are almost certainly dwarfed by anything that is done by the state and local governments. See earlier March 2013 TRAC report that discussed the debate over federal gun policies, examining historical trends in weapons prosecutions and the role of state and local governments.
What Kinds of Gun Violations Are Federally Prosecuted?
There is a long list of gun violations that qualify as federal criminal offenses. Most of these are found in the U.S. Criminal Code (Title 18) under Sections 922 and 924. The U.S. Tax Code (Title 26) also has some criminal weapons provisions, largely under Section 5861. Each of these three code sections includes many separate individual provisions.
While there are numerous federal provisions, just one of these accounts for three out of every four federal weapons prosecutions. During FY 2017, federal records indicate this was the lead charge for 6,161 prosecutions. This statutory provision is found at 18 USC § 922(g)(1) which prohibits any felon from possessing, shipping/transporting, or receiving any firearm or ammunition. The penalty for violating this law is up to ten years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.
The next most frequently used statute is 18 USC § 924(c)(1)(A)(i) which provides for enhanced penalties for the use, carrying, possession of a firearm during the commission of a federal crime of violence or drug trafficking crime. While the second most frequently used, just under one out of twenty (4.6%) of gun prosecutions during the last five years was under this statute. During FY 2017, a total of 339 individuals were prosecuted with this lead charge. This provision has been increasingly relied upon by federal prosecutors - with 81.3 percent more prosecutions under this provision during the last five years, than were seen during the previous five-year period. This occurred despite the fact that the number of gun prosecutions overall has fallen.
In third place, with a total of 226 individuals prosecuted during FY 2017 was a provision concerning unlawful possession of a firearm by a person unlawfully in the United States (18 USC § 922(g)(5)(A)). This provision accounted for 3.3 percent of gun prosecutions during the last five years. Use of this provision, however, is down during the last five years over the number during the previous five-year period.
One provision while still relatively infrequently used has grown significantly over the past couple of years. This is for possession of a gun by persons convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence.
Most gun provisions are fairly infrequently invoked. Table 2 provides a detailed breakdown of federal gun prosecutions by recorded lead charge in each of the past ten years.
Table 1. Number of Federal Weapons Prosecutions Filed
By Fiscal Year, Lead Charge, Program and Lead Investigative Agency
Table 2. Number of Federal Criminal Prosecutions by Lead Charge, FY 2008 - FY 2017
TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.